Erica Schoenberger: Buckingham County faces the prospect of a gold mine within its borders. Many of the county’s residents are opposed to it. Virginia has established a working group and also enlisted the help of the National Academy of Sciences to examine the possible environmental and social ramifications.
Gold mining entails both risks and rewards. Who bears the risks and who reaps the rewards? That is a critical question for Buckingham County and for Virginia.
The principal risks are environmental. These include acid mine drainage, cyanide spills and the failure of tailings storage dams.
Mining involves a lot of earth moving – no surprise. The snag is that the same geological processes that produce valuable metals such as gold also tend to produce sulfide minerals – compounds of sulfur and minerals. The digging and churning bring the sulfides to the surface. They react with water to form sulfuric acid. This creates acid mine drainage. The acid promotes the further release of toxic metals that may be present, such as cadmium, mercury or arsenic, into adjacent surface waters. A special feature of acid mine drainage is that it continues even after mining has stopped – essentially indefinitely.
Erica Schoenberger teaches in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She was a guest speaker for the NASEM study group which is gathering information to report to the State Agency: Potential impacts of gold mining in Virginia.