Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Department of Energy
Department of Energy
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10/28/22  3:41 pm
Commenter: Heidi Dhivya Berthoud

Re-mining and reclaiming abandoned gold mines & local zoning ‘ban’ on new gold mining 

The main concern for this comment is about cleaning up the existing toxic contamination we have from the many long-abandoned gold mines in Virginia.  In light of what we know, that Virginia land-use Zoning Code (15.2-2280) allows local communities the authority to restrict or prohibit (new) gold mining, I would like to assert that any local (or state) ‘ban’, restrictions or prohibitions include allowances for re-mining and reclamation. 


Now, interestingly, the proposed Buckingham rights-based Toxic Trespass ordinance does not call for restricting or prohibiting metallic mining (not limited to just gold mining). It is a civil rights law that would essentially place a burden on the mining company to prove its work would be harmless to the community - before getting any permits. It asserts community rights to protect us over corporate claimed rights. It has a very different approach from land-use law. But they both assert local authority for communities to protect themselves.


I made a visit to the Moss Gold Mine in Goochland on Thursday, 10/20. I joined a National Geographic photographer who got a small grant to do a piece centered on gold mining and its impacts on Virginia water. This trip helped remind me of this major concern.


Paul Busch, current owner of the Moss Mine, is re-mining and reclaiming the abandoned mine. He’s the only active gold miner in Virginia. His operation is small (several acres), which he says, “is the only economically viable way to mine gold in our state, as there is not enough concentrated gold to make large operations such as the Haile mine in South Carolina economically feasible, despite the claims of Aston Bay, the exploratory company.” Aston Bay’s statements caused alarm in Buckingham. 


There is, however, plenty of gold left in most of the tailings and shafts of abandoned mines, to make it worth re-mining and at the same time reclaiming the land, and the mercury along with it. We have long standing extensive, existing toxicity that is not getting much needed attention, thus Paul marvels at all the attention being given to potential new large scale mines that he doesn’t believe are viable.


We also met Kim, the only licensed woman “gold digger” in Virginia. She works for Paul as the operator of a huge earth-moving excavator called “Little Sister”.


There are 447 documented abandoned gold mines in Virginia, and an estimated 500 undocumented, and they are all loaded with mercury, some with cyanide, arsenic, and other toxic materials. Many have numerous gaping and dangerous open shafts. There are some un-acknowledged superfund sites awaiting recognition. Paul showed us a Lidar map revealing a disturbing number of pits and shafts in his nearby neighborhood alone. 


Virginia was recently granted 22 million federal dollars to reclaim mining sites (an indication of just how serious this concern is). Paul says the gold mines should be a higher priority over coal, as they are way more toxic, and dangerous. “Many landowners with abandoned gold mines don’t know, or don’t want to know what they have. They may not want the government to come in to tell them what to do.  They have real concerns about the expense of clean up or devaluation of their property,” according to Paul. 


There are numerous ponds, lakes, streams and rivers that are highly contaminated (because they are downstream or downwind of abandoned mine activity), where people and animals swim, fish and, unknowingly, get poisoned. Paul does testing for people who ask him. Statewide agreement needs to be made on how to best educate, fund and clean up.


How re-mining and clean up is done is important, or all that toxic contamination can be stirred up and sent downstream or evaporated and sent downwind, or dug up and moved elsewhere for landfill or… The essential ingredients to Paul’s small operation are:


  • Engineering and hands-on know-how 

  • How to separate the gold from the mercury safely using gravity, not more chemicals 

  • How and where to send the mercury (another problem needing state help & oversight) 

  • Knowledge of, and stamina for how to navigate the regulatory system

  • How to attract and keep investors - Paul has $2 million invested in his small operation

  • Ghutzpah (boldness) to carry this out.


It's not easy to match all those ingredients - which is why Paul is the only one doing it in Virginia.


Currently the state regulations allow for commercial mining and recreational gold mining. There are no separate regulations for re-mining and reclamation, which there urgently needs to be in order to help more of this to happen. Why hasn’t this happened already? That’s a story, but let’s look at some of the problems that hinder the clean up and why we would want to resolve those. 


It's too expensive to move the huge equipment Paul has from mine to mine. In order for him to re-mine and reclaim [remove both gold and mercury from the mine waste - aka tailings] other abandoned mines, the waste needs to be hauled to him. To do that he is required to bond the other mine sites, which is cost prohibitive for him. Ironically, for Paul to move the tailings, he would need to be bonded, while the landowner could move that same earth elsewhere as landfill with no need for bonding, and they may or may not know that it's toxic - a huge problem for us all…


Paul spoke of how important it is to know how to recognize, find, process and dispose of the mercury laden tailings, and the need for oversight of that whole process, for which there are no regulations. Paul says he gets help from the state (Virginia Energy and DEQ), as best they can, as they are handcuffed by regulations. So regs can be helpful, or not. In the past, some places have been reclaimed by filling pits and shafts and called safe even though mercury was never removed.  There are no fines for breaking the rules either… He said the old timers would smelt the mercury - evaporating it into the air, only for it to drop [mercury is heavy] on land downwind and distant from the mine… Is your garden soil laden with mercury and other toxins? Are you and your children swimming in those toxic streams?


A few words on recreational gold mining, which is very concerning. I don’t want to stop others from having fun. I think perhaps the laws did not apprehend the problems and now need to be updated. Apparently stream beds are being torn up and banks are being undercut. Very concerning is that mercury is being stirred up and sent downstream. Other recreational activities such as fishing and hunting require licensing, which often include some element of education. Licensing could require education about rules and consequences  and how to deal with mercury. Monthly meetings could be drop off points for mercury. The license fees could help cover costs of oversight.


In summary, I do not want to be trespassed on by the lingering toxic contaminants of the thousand-some abandoned, unreclaimed gold mines in Virginia. I have learned a lot these past 2+ years since we discovered the exploratory work of Aston Bay.  Let’s stay with this complex statewide predicament and address all the problems of this toxic industry, now. Let’s clean up our existing mess, and prohibit new industrial gold mining in Virginia. 


Paul reviewed this submission. I wanted to make sure that I understood the problems and represented them fairly, as best I could. This is not an endorsement for Paul. I appreciate being informed by his experience. Will these concerns be addressed in the NASEM and SAC reports? If not - SAC, please do address! Thank you.

CommentID: 204066