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Scientists say state is not ready to regulate gold mines

There are ways to protect against the environmental risks posed by mining for gold, but Virginia lacks the regulations needed to do so. That’s the key message of a report prepared over more than a year by 13 technical experts. Their chairman is Virginia Tech Professor Bill Hopkins.

National Academies Gold Mining Report

“Because we haven’t had appreciable commercial gold mining in the state for over 70 years, Virginia’s current regulatory structure is more geared toward things like sand and gravel mining, not gold mining,” he says.

Hopkins adds that we need to make sure the toxic waste produced by mines is properly stored.

“Modern mining engineering is perfectly capable of building safe storage facilities, but we need to be mindful that in the face of climate change you could have increased precipitation, increased flooding events, and those sorts of future problems need to be considered when tailing dams are being designed.”

And he warns that mining companies need to know what’s around gold deposits. Sulfide-rich minerals, for example, could mean acid runoff.

“And this acidic drainage can then contaminate surface and groundwater supplies," Hopkins explains. "It can release toxic metals into streams. It can increase the salinity of those streams, and it can reduce the PH of those streams, and all of these things can be toxic to aquatic life.”

Mercury, used in mines decades ago, is still trapped in stream beds and soil.

“So if you go in and you re-mine these sites you run the risk of liberating that mercury back into the environment, and mercury, of course, is very, very toxic.”

And Hopkins says the state needs to make sure companies post a substantial bond before starting work – to make sure there’s enough money to safely close a mine and restore the area around it when firms leave the state.

“We need to be sure that finances are there, quite frankly, to cover those costs so that it doesn’t get passed on to the taxpayers.”

The Buckingham County Board of Supervisors, which had delayed a decision on permitting gold mining, will meet November 15th.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief