"Orphaned", or abandoned, mineral mined lands are those areas disturbed by the mining of all minerals, except coal, which were not required by law to be reclaimed or have not been reclaimed. Virginia’s General Assembly enacted reclamation laws in 1968 to minimize the adverse effects of mining on the environment. Recognizing that past mining practices had left many orphaned or unreclaimed mine sites, a proposal was made to study the extent of orphaned mines in Virginia.
Mining in Virginia has taken place in one form or another since man’s initial habitation of the land. Early mining in Virginia began with the retrieval of flint and stone by American Indians for use as tools, and with the mining of bog iron ore near Jamestown in 1609. The first ironworks were set up in 1619 about 66 miles above Jamestown on the James River. The Virginia ironworks were small local operations using local sources of ore for raw material. The only other metal of any importance in colonial America was lead, which was used mostly for bullets. The Austinville Lead/Zinc Mine in Wythe County, Virginia operated in the 1700’s and was important in the Revolutionary War.
Salt mines, located in the town of Saltville, were utilized for preservation purposes during the Civil War. In the 1800’s numerous gold mines existed in Virginia. Shafts were sunk and drifts driven to explore and mine the deposits of gold, copper, iron, lead, and silver. As the mineral deposits in the western U.S. were discovered and found to be richer, Virginia’s metal mines began to close down. The majority of the gold mines in Virginia closed during the Civil War with only minor attempts to reopen them after the war. Other metal mines in Virginia remained viable during this period; the Crimora Mine, the largest producer of manganese in the United States, operated until 1958.
The materials mined in the 1900’s included the only arsenic mined east of the Mississippi River, the Brinton Mine, which operated from 1912-1917. Manganese and iron mining continued throughout the state until production ceased for the most part in the 1950’s. Barite production began in Fauquier County in 1845 and continued also until the mid-1950's. Titanium ore mining and processing continued from the 1940’s to the early 1970’s. The mining of construction materials, which was first documented in the late 1800’s, continues today and includes sand and gravel, granite, limestone, gneiss, and sandstone used for crushed stone, and dimension stone, gypsum, clay, and others. At one time or another, over 50 minerals have been mined in Virginia, contributing greatly to the state’s economy but also sometimes causing adverse impacts on the public’s health and safety, and the environment.
The impacts of past mining on the environment and the public’s health and safety are present in varying degrees throughout the state. These impacts are defined as follows:
- Environmental pollution is defined as any condition, which poses existing or potential hazards to the environment. The major environmental problems associated with inactive/abandoned mine sites are stream sedimentation from unvegetated soils, acid draining tailings and waste piles, ground water degradation, and trash dumps.
- Hazards to the public health and safety are defined as any conditions which have the potential, now or in the future, of posing a danger to the public. The major public health and safety problems associated with inactive/abandoned mine sites in Virginia are fall hazards from highwalls, shafts and other mine openings, and the unauthorized and unsupervised use of mine sites as recreational areas.
Gold, pyrite, zinc, and copper mines in the eastern, south-central, and southwest portion of the state pose public safety hazards due to hazardous open mine shafts at many of the mines, and environmental hazards from acidic drainage, mine waste, and stream sedimentation.
In this same region of the state, abandoned sand and gravel mines provide potential sources of non-point and point source pollution of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The entire state is host to hundreds of acres of denuded landscape resulting from manganese and iron mining prior to 1950. These mines continue to pose threats to state waters through increased stream sedimentation.
In the western region of the state, shafts from the mining of zinc, and stream sedimentation from manganese and iron are prevalent.
Across the state abandoned quarries pose numerous dangers to public health and safety. These old mine sites were often used as trash dumps and/or for recreational activities. As a result, people have fallen from highwalls at old quarry sites, drowned in bodies of water left by mining operations, and suffered serious injuries while riding ATV’s and other off-road vehicles. Mineral Mining promotes the MSHA Stay out Stay Alive program and offers educational materials to bring awareness to the dangers of these abandoned sites. Find safety alert materials here »
As a result of a proposal by the mining industry, legislation was enacted in 1978, which established a non-coal orphaned land reclamation program. Funds for the reclamation of orphaned mines are obtained from interest monies earned from a state managed industry self-bonding program. Mine operators participating in the program make payments into the Mineral Reclamation Fund based on the acreage disturbed by their operations. The fund assures that active mines will be reclaimed and participation is mandatory under Virginia’s Mineral Mining law. Additional funding is obtained by actively soliciting environmental grants to leverage the interest monies to the maximum extent possible.
There are an estimated 4,000 orphan mines in the Commonwealth, 69% of which have been inventoried. Once identified, an abandonded mineral mine site is evaluated for its potential hazards to the environment and the public’s health and safety. This evaluation includes soil and water investigations, studies on the feasibility of reclaiming the site, cost analysis, and seeking the landowner’s consent to allow reclamation to proceed.
The first orphaned land site was reclaimed in 1981. Since then, 134 orphaned land projects have been completed encompassing 650 acres at a cost of $3,715,301 (2021). The average cost of reclamation per acre has been $5,715.84.Report an abandoned mineral mine site »