Dear Committee Members:
As has been made clear through the course of the committee’s study, Virginia has no experience with modern, industrial-scale gold mining, which utilizes practices that can have significant impacts in perpetuity on surrounding communities and the environment. Furthermore, the Commonwealth has yet to reclaim hundreds of long-abandoned gold mining sites throughout the state, some of which continue to pollute Virginia waters. Against this backdrop, Virginia residents have expressed significant concerns about new gold mining taking place in the state and careful consideration is needed before moving forward with this extractive industry in the Commonwealth.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation submitted comments to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee highlighting various regulatory gaps in Virginia that show the state is ill-prepared to protect communities and the environment from the impacts of modern, industrial-scale gold mining operations (Attachment 1). Our comments were informed in part by a report prepared by Dr. Ann Maest, an aqueous geochemist with over 25 years of professional and research experience. Dr. Maest’s report outlines the potential environmental and public health impacts of gold mining (Attachment 2), harms that cannot even begin to be prevented without filling Virginia’s current regulatory gaps. These regulatory gaps—both substantive and procedural—include:
Even though current regulatory protections may be lacking at the state level, localities can restrict or prohibit gold mining in their jurisdictions through their zoning authority, as described in the presentation given to the committee by Joe Lerch, Director of Local Government Policy at the Virginia Association of Counties. See Va. Code § 15.2-2280(4) (“Any locality may, by ordinance, classify the territory under its jurisdiction or any substantial portion thereof into districts . . . and in each district it may regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine the . . . excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.”). Localities are also permitted to establish local standards and regulations that govern mineral mining operations. See Va. Code § 45.2-1227. By requiring that any local ordinance or regulation governing gold mining activities be “no less stringent” than standards adopted by the state, Va. Code § 45.2-1227(B), the General Assembly makes clear that it intended a cooperative approach to gold mining rather than a displacement of local authority. This means localities can take steps to regulate gold mining operations in their jurisdictions today, and that the state level regulations serve as the regulatory floor.
But gold mining operations do not affect only the communities where they are located. For example, Virginia’s Gold-Pyrite belt is upstream of public drinking water intakes for some 3.6 million Virginians (Attachment 3)—a statistic that highlights the potential scale and geographic reach of the impacts from gold mining operations in the Commonwealth. Ultimately, it is imperative that Virginia carefully consider the full range of the potential impacts of modern, industrial-scale gold mining on communities and the environment, and, if this extractive industry is permitted in Virginia, adequate protections must be ensured at the state level.
Carroll Courtenay, Staff Attorney