Gold mining report sent to General Assembly. What happens next?

Published 2:47 am Tuesday, December 13, 2022

DILLWYN – Virginia’s existing rules and regulations aren’t designed to deal with gold mining. That’s the conclusion reached by the Virginia Gold Mining Workgroup, which filed their official report with the state on Dec. 1. 

But with bad news also comes some good, the final report points out. 

“Though questions remain as to whether permit applications will ever be filed for a gold mine, it is generally understood that any such project remains years away,” the report states. “As such, there is ample time for the General Assembly to consider updating existing frameworks, should it choose to do so.” 

And that’s where we stand, as of Dec. 12. The state, or local governments, have the time to make changes in the regulations. By all estimates, any proposed gold mine is years away from even filing for approval. The question remains as to if they’ll choose to do so. 

What happens next? 

“I think it’ll be up to localities to do something,” said Jordan Miles. He serves both as chairman of the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors and as a member of the state’s gold mining workgroup. Miles said he doesn’t expect a decision from the Assembly during the upcoming 2023 session, so if cities and counties want to make a change, they’ll have to do it. 

“We just do not have the framework in place to facilitate gold mining,” Miles said. “It’s clear to me the General Assembly needs to go ahead and put a moratorium in place until we can build up that framework. Either that or we ban large scale gold mining.” 

Another member of the workgroup points out a further issue with the report. If you say the current rules aren’t strong enough, but don’t change them, aren’t you just opening the door for trouble? 

“They can study all they want, but without a moratorium, companies can come in and do whatever,” said Kenda Hanuman. The workgroup member also works with the environmental protection group Friends of Buckingham. While Miles was happy with the end report, saying he was “proud of the work”, Hanuman sees several red flags in the final version. She feels parts of the group’s material was minimized. 

“Our statement of task said we were going to do an evaluation and I don’t really see that in the topics,” Hanuman said. 

She also questions if the final version isn’t reducing concern too much. A section of the report says that the possibility of a new gold mine in Virginia is remote, due to the fact even if a gold vein is found, it’s rare that there’s enough to make drilling worth the cost. Hanuman questions if that will make lawmakers ignore the issue. 

What does the gold mining report say? 

Current mining laws work for the types of mines now operating in the state, the report says. But commercial gold mining is something different. It uses different techniques to get to the metal and needs a modern system, the report argues, to monitor impact. Part of the concern involves the water system. 

The James River, for example, is just two miles away from part of the land currently being prospected for gold in Buckingham County. That river delivers water to nearly 2.7 million Virginians. All it would take is one accident during actual mining. If the protection systems fail, that releases poisonous chemicals into the river, damaging the drinking water for millions of Virginians.

Things are different from 1804, when the first commercial gold mining operation started in Virginia. That was Whitehall Mine, near Shady Grove Church in Spotsylvania County. Now, as the report points out, advanced exploration methods may cause greater impacts. That includes impact on soil, air and public health in general.

Take, for example, any exploration and prospecting work. Prospecting and exploration is currently exempt from even some of the current regulations in place. The report points out that “there are currently no mineral mining regulations for exploration in Virginia that mandate the plugging of drill holes or the covering of drill cuttings from the hole.” 

Basically, if a group is exploring or prospecting, those drill holes can remain open, potentially causing damage to the groundwater. A company also doesn’t have to notify when it’s drilling during the exploration phase. Residents, especially those close by, just find out often due to the noise.

Are people prospecting for gold? 

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. The Virginia Department of Energy has confirmed multiple times over the last two months that there have been no applications to mine for gold. And the department isn’t aware of any activity or plans to do so in the near future. 

Next steps with gold mining

In the days since the report’s been released, it’s generated a number of responses from groups across the state. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Piedmont Environmental Council, The Virginia Environmental Justice Collective, Virginia Community Rights Network and the previously mentioned Friends of Buckingham all sent out statements to media and state officials, calling on officials to put safety precautions in place. 

“The report reaffirms the need for intense caution and scrutiny over the potential for gold and other metal mining in Virginia,” said Chris Miller. He serves as president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “Most importantly, the report makes it clear that there are deficiencies in the current law and regulatory oversight of mining activities.” 

Miller’s group requests that no new mining permits be issued in Virginia until remediation and reclamation plans for existing mining sites are completed. Many groups also support a “Prove It First” rule, currently being considered by the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors. This ordinance requires applicants to produce one instance of a mining operation anywhere in the world, similar in type and scope, which succeeded without poisoning the people and environment in which it was located. If they can show a similar example, the company would be granted approval to operate. If they can’t, the project can’t move forward.

But as for what happens now, that’s up to both local officials and the General Assembly. Buckingham supervisors will discuss the issue this week. The report, meanwhile, has been turned over. Now it’s up to Assembly members if they want to move forward on the recommendations or just let them sit.