Virginia’s gold-mining history is well-documented. In Orange County, this history is an issue that PEC has been raising for more than 15 years, as it relates to development proposals on the Route 3 corridor (e.g. Walmart and earlier iterations of Wilderness Crossing) and the Department of Environmental Quality’s designation of the Rapidan River in this area as impaired with mercury contamination. However, early in November 2021, PEC learned some shocking information that we were sure you’d want to know about: of the five formally-named gold mine sites located on the proposed Wilderness Crossing residential development, which together consist of 15 different surface and shaft mines, none of them have been closed and cleaned up – a process called “reclamation.”
History of gold mining at the site
Mining activities at what is now the Wilderness Crossing development proposal location stretched from the early 1800s to as late as 1939. Although some gold was extracted from surface deposits, much is contained within rock and required underground shafts to reach the ore body. Once the rock was extracted, it had to be crushed to free up the gold. Gold was then processed using mercury and/or cyanide. Stretching for over a century, these toxic processes left a great deal of contamination behind. The Vaucluse mine, one of the five named mines on the Wilderness Crossing property, was the largest mine in Virginia, with more gold extracted than any other mine site in the commonwealth. The amount of gold extracted has bearing on how much mercury was used in the processing. Put simply, it is very likely that the Vaucluse site is the most contaminated of any historic gold mine in Virginia.
Former mine sites were never reclaimed
Obsolete mines are closed and cleaned up through a process called “reclamation.” Through this process, the adverse environmental effects of mining are minimized and mined lands are returned to a beneficial end-use. Reclamation is done to protect public health, safety and welfare, addressing pollution on-site, including toxic tailings consisting of ground rock and process effluents that are generated in a mine processing. Tailings of this sort usually contain extremely high levels of mercury and other constituents related to acid mine drainage.
In regards to Wilderness Crossing, the proposed 2,602-acre site has 15 surface and shaft mines—making up five formally-named mine sites—as well as several old prospecting pits scattered throughout. Of the five formal mines located on the property, only one was partially reclaimed with a shaft being filled with rubble and debris. This means the remnants of extraction and processing still exist today at all the specific mine sites, in the soil, stream sediment and in tailings piles or pits spread throughout the property. As well, the shaft mines include some that extend to 300 feet in depth with numerous side shafts and underground workings. This condition raises serious safety concerns with hazards related to open holes (fall hazards) as well as sinkholes and subsidence that may impact future structures (such as residential houses) on the site.
In 1988, a small mining operation expressed an interest to re-mine the Vaucluse site. The county denied the permit in response to citizen concerns about contamination. That concern was warranted. When evaluated by the Virginia Department of Energy (formerly the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy or DMME) that same year, that agency said the Vaucluse mine should be investigated for inclusion in the Superfund cleanup, citing extreme mercury and acid mine drainage contamination. While we have yet to ascertain whether that investigation ever took place, properties that carry this designation are considered to pose the greatest risk to local populations and the environment based on levels of contamination.
The Piedmont Environmental Council has obtained additional documents about the mines from the Department of Energy, and the details are alarming. For example, specific to the Vaucluse mine, the tailing pit, resembling a large beaver pond, is 60 feet deep and located in the middle of a tributary of Shotgun Branch. Since it was never cleaned up, the tailings pit is still leaching into Shotgun Branch today and is a likely source of contamination for Wilderness Run, and ultimately, the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. Given the safety issues and severity of the contamination that is both localized and more broadly spread across the property, we have many concerns about the future of the property as proposed by the applicant.
Regardless of the development proposal, PEC’s priority is to see all of the mines reclaimed (mines closed and cleaned up) as soon as possible, and soils, stream sediments, wells, and aquifers examined for mercury, cyanide and other toxins. The property’s future use should be determined only after the site has been fully reclaimed and greater knowledge is gained with regard to safety and long-term needs/monitoring of any encapsulated contamination that remains on-site.
Below are some of the documents [view all in folder] that are now available to the public regarding the mining sites:
Mine Site Summaries
What’s next for the Wilderness Crossing proposal?
In the Orange County Planning Commission’s November meeting, a commission member disclosed some of the files from the Virginia Department of Energy (VDOE) to the rest of the commission. Since that time, we have been trying to gather as much information about the historic use and the current status of the site. The Planning Commission asked many of the same questions we have. What is the current status of these gold mines and the soils around them? Can the site be fully remediated and cleaned up of toxins that have leached into the ground and groundwater over these many years? Who is responsible for clean-up and who would pay for it? How would this contamination and any future remediation impact the proposed development and the health and safety of current and future residents?
At this time, we have no indication from the Planning Commission that these questions will be answered anytime soon, and therefore, any public hearings on the issue will likely not occur prior to the new year. However, we have heard some officials remark that this is a “state problem” along with some indication they believe the county can move forward on the land use decision absent remediation. We hope that Orange County officials will ensure that the public’s health, safety and welfare are protected in any decisions made with regard to the Wilderness Crossing application or any future applications for this land.
We are deeply concerned that the mines on this 2,600 site have remained unreclaimed for almost a century. Further, the listing of this section of the Rapidan River as impaired for mercury came after confirmation that these old mine sites are extremely contaminated with that specific toxic heavy metal. We are pushing for the full involvement of key agencies, including the Virginia departments of health, energy, and environmental quality, and a strategy for how to address this problem. As previously mentioned, the county may decide to move forward and “let the state deal with it”. We encourage Orange County to, for the time being, withhold making any decision on the Wilderness Crossing application. Such a pause would allow time to provide the public with more information on the site, its level of contamination and other safety hazards, details on current public health and continuing environmental damage, and any and all plans for remediation and future uses of the site. The county should help facilitate a conversation with state agencies on the matter, taking an active role in educating residents and ensuring the property is cleaned up as soon as possible.
For more information, please contact Dan Holmes, Director of State Policy – firstname.lastname@example.org.