Next gold mining meeting set

Published 2:40 pm Saturday, September 24, 2022

How should Virginia handle any proposed gold mining operations? Buckingham residents will have another chance to weigh in on that question next Monday. The Virginia Department of Energy (VDE) will hold a public meeting of the Gold Study Workgroup on Monday, Sept. 26.

This will be another morning meeting, starting at 9 a.m. at the Buckingham Community Center, located at 16268 N. James Madison Highway in Dillwyn. Now there will be time for public comment, but it is a scheduled meeting of the workgroup, so there will be presentations set up as well.

The first will be from the Virginia Association of Counties, weighing in on the subject. The second will be a portion of the draft report due to the General Assembly by Dec. 1.

Is there gold mining in Virginia?

This issue stems from a situation that started more than two years ago. In April 2019, the Canadian prospecting company Aston Bay Holdings announced they were beginning to search for gold in Buckingham County.

To be clear, Aston Bay isn’t a mining company. It’s a prospecting company. That means they search for gold, silver or other minerals, identify and purchase a location, then sell that information (and property) to the highest bidder. They can do this because under Virginia law, prospecting doesn’t require a state permit if you’re searching for anything other than uranium.

In statements given in March 2019 and July 2020, company officials declared their drilling confirmed a “a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham, as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.” In other words, they found enough to keep going. At the beginning of 2020, the company secured the right to prospect on 4,953 acres of land in Buckingham County.

But as of now, prospecting is all that’s happening. In an interview with The Herald earlier this month, Aston Bay CEO Thomas Ullrich said the company was “still in the early stages of exploration.”

As for a timeline on when work might be finished, first it has to be restarted. The company hasn’t done any work in Buckingham since early 2020.

“We have conducted only preliminary exploratory drilling on the local landowners’ properties at Buckingham, and none for the past two years,” Ullrich said. “We have several quality potential projects, but a limited amount of funds. Over the last year and a half, we have been investing in the landowners in another county. We look forward to investing in Buckingham again.”

More details about the gold vein

Ullrich said the gold vein is almost vertical, approximately one to two meters wide, 200 meters in length and extends into the subsurface to about 100 meters deep. That’s what the work crews found so far.

“This is contained in a very small footprint, on the order of a few acres,” Ullrich said. “It is possible that the vein extends deeper and farther laterally along (the) strike. Of course, this is what the local landowners, the holders of the mineral rights, would like, as well as Aston Bay.”

There’s one important point here. Ullrich mentioned the local landowners. At one point, Aston Bay held the right to prospect on 4,953 acres of land in Buckingham County. They do not, however, outright own the land. In each case, they’re working with, and negotiating the rights from, local landowners. And that number is constantly changing.

As of Friday, Sept. 16, that number stood at 2,500 acres.

“Exploration is a process of going from the large to the small,” Ullrich said. “We initially need to investigate a larger area, then refine to where the potential is greatest.”

He added that most of the 2,500 acres aren’t actually the target area. Instead, they’re included because a lease agreement has to cover entire parcels of land, even if the company is only interested in a portion of that. He estimates the area of high interest to be under 1,000 acres currently, and expects that to also be reduced.

For example, the Buckingham gold vein as currently identified, is under six acres.

What is in the report?

But while any mining could be years away, members of the General Assembly wanted to get ahead of the issue. That’s why Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) filed HB 2213 in 2021. The bill, which passed in that year’s regular session, put a few requirements in place.

First, a work group had to be set up to study the issue. It was divided into two parts. One of those is a technical committee, evaluating the scientific aspects of gold mining. That group is led by officials from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). The other group, which is the one meeting Monday in Buckingham, includes representatives from Virginia Energy, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Health, the Council on Environmental Justice, the Monacan Indian Nation and local citizen groups.

The idea is to evaluate the impacts of gold mining on the area. The work group looks into the effects gold mining will have on the environment, including public health in general and the air and water quality.

Are existing regulations strong enough to protect air and water quality? Are there areas where mining needs to be banned? To answer those and other questions, experts in mining, hydrology, toxicology and other fields are being brought in. Also representatives of potentially affected communities in localities with significant deposits of gold are to be included.

After hearing from experts and holding public hearings, the two parts of the workgroup will come together to deliver a report by December. That will be discussed in the next General Assembly session, which begins in January 2023.