RICHMOND — The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will conduct an independent study of the health, safety and environmental impacts of gold mining in Virginia as part of a state review that lawmakers agreed to undertake in 2021.
Among the issues the committee will examine are current gold mining operations at sites similar to those found in Virginia, the potential impacts of such operations’ byproducts on downstream communities and whether existing state environmental regulations related to gold mining are sufficient to protect air and water quality.
According to an agreement between the National Academies and Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy signed in July, the committee will produce an “independent, peer-reviewed consensus report” for DMME, which will then release its own “companion report” in response.
Gold mining became an unexpectedly hot-button issue of Virginia’s 2021 legislative session when Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, proposed a temporary ban on the activity until a study of its environmental and health impacts could be completed.
The bill was triggered by exploratory drilling in Buckingham County by Canadian company Aston Bay Holdings. In 2020, the company announced it had detected “a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham.”
Gold was historically mined at hundreds of sites in Virginia along what is known as the Virginia Gold-Pyrite Belt stretching from Fairfax to Appomattox counties. However, no significant extraction has occurred since 1947.
Lawmakers ultimately agreed to the study but stripped out the provision for a temporary ban on gold mining until July 2023.
While the General Assembly appropriated $250,000 for the review in fiscal year that ends in June 2022, the National Academies expect costs to exceed $500,000.
“NASEM anticipates additional funds will be necessary to complete the study as scoped,” the statement of task says. “It is possible that NASEM will be able to provide the additional funds to make up the difference. If these are unavailable, NASEM and DMME will need to descope one or more of the study tasks to fit in the lower budget.”