Developers strike contamination from Virginia gold mines

Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Center, talks to a local reporter in June of 2021 on a road leading into a proposed development project in Orange County, VA. The proposed Wilderness Crossing development, which would transform a 2,600-acre property along the Rapidan River, has run into concerns over historic gold mining onsite. (Hugh Kenny / PEC)

A property in the northern corner of Orange County, VA, that borders the Rapidan River was once the center of a gold-mining boom in the state. Now, a new development project planned for the 2,600-acre property is dredging up some of that history — and fresh concerns over how to deal with an inherited legacy of contamination.

Developers asked county officials last year to consider rezoning the heavily forested property (part of the Germanna-Wilderness Area) to accommodate a mix of residential, commercial and light industrial development interspersed with parks and open spaces. Known as Wilderness Crossing, the development would happen in phases over the next 30 years. 

The Piedmont Environmental Council, a nonprofit that serves as a land-use watchdog for the region, immediately opposed the project, describing it as the largest potential rezoning in the county’s history. If developed to the fullest extent the zoning changes would allow, the proposal could eventually double the population of largely rural county, currently home to about 36,000 people.

Proposed Wilderness Crossing

A map shows the 2,600-acre property in Orange County that is requesting a rezoning change for a proposed development. (Piedmont Environmental Council)

But when the council’s director of state policy, Dan Holmes, began looking into the project, he found deeper concerns. A 1988 inspection of the largest of five abandoned gold mines on the property indicated significant mercury contamination.

The report by Virginia Energy (the state agency formerly called the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy) noted that the site, known as the Vaucluse Mine, should be investigated for a potential Superfund cleanup. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program cleans up some of the nation’s most contaminated lands.

The Virginia Energy report also noted that most of the gross tonnage of gold extracted in the state between 1832 and 1860 came from the Vaucluse Mine. Mining records indicate Henry Ford bought the gold mine at one point just to get some of this machinery, which is now on display in a Michigan museum.

Gold mining along Virginia’s pyrite belt looked a lot different from mining in California. The gold in this area is trapped inside the bedrock. Miners would harvest the rock and use a rock crusher to expose the embedded gold.

Through a process called amalgamation, they added mercury, which binds to the gold. The mercury was burned off in an industrial boiler, causing some of the pollutant to be released into the air and some left behind as tailings to be reused or discarded.

Many residents know that gold mining took place as far back as the 1830s along the pyrite belt that runs through this corner of Orange County. The developer even nodded to that history by naming proposed roads “Goldmine Parkway” and labeling neighborhoods the “Goldmine Preserve” and “Goldmine Central.” But no one seemed to be aware of — or at least talking about — the potential for remaining mercury contamination.

Holmes researched whether state or federal agencies had investigated the need for a cleanup at the site since the 1988 report, but he found nothing.

“At what point do we, as citizens in the commonwealth, have a right to say, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Holmes asked.

Mercury rising

Jon Steinbauer, a geological technician overseeing orphaned lands for Virginia Energy, said the 1988 report was triggered by fresh interest in permits to mine gold again at the site. Documents indicate several mining companies were studying the site at the time, and Steinbauer said someone was also sifting through sediments in the nearby Rapidan River to look for gold.

In a stream at the site, the inspector found what he initially thought was a beaver dam, but it turned out to be a pile of mercury tailings discarded from the mine operations, Steinbauer said.

“Tests were done on it, and that’s when the concerns were raised from that initial inspection,” he said.

Another 1988 document suggested rerouting a stream around the tailings pile, sealing it off “so that mercury cannot re-enter the surface waters.” Other historic maps indicate that the tailings pond could be located in or along Shotgun Branch, which originates on the property and runs into the Rapidan.

Steinbauer said the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality followed up on the reports by testing the water quality and fish tissue in the river. While mercury was found, it was not present in levels high enough to trigger additional action.

Twenty-two years later, though, in 2010, a nearly 10-mile stretch of the Rapidan River that runs along the edge of the property was declared impaired because of mercury in fish tissue.

Rapidan River

In 2010, a nearly 10-mile stretch of the Rapidan River that runs along the edge of the property was declared impaired because of the presence of mercury in fish tissue.  (Hugh Kenny / PEC) 

Connor O’Loughlin, site assessment manager for EPA Region 3, searched the agency’s database for information about the Vaucluse Mine to see whether the EPA had ever investigated its potential as a Superfund site. He said there were no documents mentioning the site. In Virginia, DEQ coordinates with the EPA to assess whether sites should be cleaned up, and both agencies said they had no records from this location and no evidence of additional investigations.

“That inspection report [from Virginia Energy] was sent to me. I showed it to the Virginia DEQ folks, and they had never seen that before,” O’Loughlin said.

Virginia’s General Assembly passed reclamation laws in 1968 requiring mine companies to properly close and reclaim properties used for mining. But mines that were abandoned before then are considered “orphaned,” leaving a vacuum of responsibility between the company that mined it and state and federal agencies.

In Virginia, the responsibility to reclaim an abandoned mine falls to the landowner. But, according to interviews with various agencies, there is no clear mechanism for requiring a landowner or developer to clean up contamination that began as far back as 190 years ago.

Questions about how the discovery of gold mine pollution would impact the proposed development hung in the air after a November meeting of the Orange County Planning Commission. After talking to the Piedmont Environmental Council about its concerns, District 1 Commissioner Jason Capelle started a public conversation with the other commissioners about the questions that recent gold mine findings raised.

“I know the landowners are aware of the mines, but are they aware of the records? Who’s responsible for the cleanup? That’s a question that [is] hard to answer. Is it federal, state, the county or the landowner?” Capelle asked at the meeting, according to the Orange County Review. “Has the landowner already considered some mitigation?

After that meeting, Holmes said, it seemed to have “stopped everything dead in its tracks.”

Vaucluse Mine

A historic photo shows the Vaucluse Mine in Orange County, VA. The mine was active in the early to mid-1800s. (Hudson Institute of Mineralogy) 

Developer responds

At the end of January, an engineering firm representing the developer and landowner submitted a 55-page document detailing plans to address mine contamination if the rezoning is approved by the county’s Board of Supervisors.

“The landowner is committed to ensuring that the existing mine areas are accurately classified and properly evaluated in accordance with applicable laws and requirements,” wrote Keith Oster, a principal at the engineering firm Sullivan Donahoe & Ingalls. “Once the evaluation process is completed, the landowner can better address any concerning areas and implement a mitigation plan in coordination with Virginia Energy to best address the same.”

Oster represents both landowner Charles “Chip” King and developer KEG Associates III, LLC, run by Kenny Dotson, who applied for the rezoning. Oster’s document submitted to the county’s director of planning outlines three phases of potential investigation and remediation that would begin after the site has been rezoned.

In a telephone interview, Oster said that developing the property is not in conflict with remediating the remaining contamination. Rather, “rezoning is a mechanism for funding” it.

If the county approves a rezoning, “as part of that, we intend to proffer to deal with the mines in a manner consistent with what I wrote,” he said. 

The document outlines where the gold mines were located along a strip down the center of the property. Topographical maps show impressions in the landscape left by the pits. Some of the mines also had vertical shafts for reaching underground gold deposits as deep as 220 feet.

One concern the plan addresses is the safety of building structures above underground shafts. The project would avoid building roads or structures in those areas, intending instead to cap the shafts with concrete and post warning signs. These measures would be taken, the document states, despite the shafts posing no serious risk of collapse because they are bored into bedrock.

The plan would also be changed to avoid construction on “vast swaths of land” that include both environmentally sensitive areas and steep slopes where mining occurred. A map shows the former gold mine areas at the center of the development plan with orange buffers marked around them. The company would begin by testing those areas to determine if and where additional mitigation is needed. This phase would take place within a year of the proposed rezoning. Much of the remaining mitigation work would occur over the following years alongside construction.

Potential mitigation might include capping contaminated hot spots with an impervious plastic or clay liner. The plan acknowledges evidence of mercury contamination, but it posits that most would be concentrated at the Vaucluse site. That’s where the heavy machinery used to extract gold from other minerals was located, according to descriptions of the mines in 1847.

After an initial review of the company’s updated plan, Don McCown, the environmental council’s Orange County field representative, was not reassured.

“What jumps off the page is that the first phase of the applicant’s ‘general’ evaluation of the mine sites would not start until after the project is rezoned,” McCown wrote in a post. “In other words, ‘Trust us, we’ll look into it later.’”

McCown instead suggested that the Orange County Board of Supervisors hold a public briefing with experts to learn how best to handle historic gold mining at the site. That board will ultimately decide whether to rezone the property and will set the terms.

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