Buckingham’s next environmental fight? Maybe gold mining.

By: - October 20, 2020 12:01 am

An ore dump truck operates at the Gruyere Gold Mine on August 04, 2019, 200km north-east of Laverton, Australia. The $621 million Gruyere gold mine is situated 200km north-east of Laverton in Western Australia’s Great Victoria Desert. Discovered in October 2013, it is Australia’s most recent major gold discovery and is expected to produce between 75,000 and 100,000 ounces in 2019. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is dead. So what’s next for Buckingham County? 

Gold, apparently. 

This month, plans by a Canadian gold mining company to extract the valuable commodity from thousands of acres of land in Buckingham surfaced, setting off a wave of alarm in a community that fought five years to keep a natural gas pipeline from being built through their corner of Central Virginia. 

“We were barely catching our breath from the pipeline and it was just like, ‘What? A gold mine?’” said Chad Oba, president of the Friends of Buckingham group that successfully fought Atlantic Coast’s plans to site a natural gas compressor station in the county’s majority-Black Union Hill neighborhood. 

Prospectors have been eyeing Buckingham, which lies along the so-called “Virginia Gold-Pyrite Belt,” for years. The metal was mined extensively in the commonwealth prior to the 1849 California gold rush, but little modern extraction has occurred. 

In 2018, however, Canadian gold mining company Aston Bay Holdings acquired mining company Jack’s Fork Exploration and its rights to an extensive geological dataset on 1.2 million acres of privately held lands in Central Virginia. Jack’s Fork was folded into a new subsidiary called Blue Ridge Mining, which in April 2019 began its own exploratory drilling in Buckingham. (According to Buckingham Planning Commission minutes, drilling has been occurring on the present site since 2016.)

Early results were promising, and in September 2019, Aston Bay signed an agreement with forest products company Weyerhaeuser to lease mineral rights on almost 11,000 acres of land in Central Virginia. Drilling continued on the Buckingham site, which sits off Warminster Church Road in the northwestern part of the county; by August 2020, Aston Bay CEO Thomas Ullrich had declared the company had found “a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.” In the same statement, Ullrich said Aston Bay planned “to conduct similar geophysical programs this fall on two other properties where shallow pre-1850 mining also confirms the existence of near-surface gold.”

But there was one major problem. Buckingham County wasn’t aware the drilling was occurring until June 2020, when staff received two complaints about the activity on parcels of land owned by Buckingham Land and Timber, a company with ties to Jack’s Fork. Furthermore, the parcels were zoned for agricultural use, with a special use permit needed for mining or quarrying. 

“We do not have a clear and defined definition of exploratory mining and how that would impact our zoning districts and if it would be allowed or not by right,” Buckingham Zoning Administrator Nicci Edmondston told the Planning Commission in July. 

Activity at the site was halted later in the summer (although geologist Joshua Seay told the Planning Commission in July that “there is no more drilling going on,” company press releases show drilling continued through the next month). County staff have estimated about 29 holes have been bored through directional drilling, with an unknown quantity of water being pumped from surrounding creeks. Aston Bay did not respond Monday to an inquiry about its plans. 

But as Buckingham County officials mull whether to amend their zoning ordinance to allow gold exploration either by right or through a special use permit, disagreements are emerging over whether gold mining should go forward at all in Central Virginia. 

David Brown, owner of Buckingham Land and Timber who was previously a partner in Jack’s Fork Exploration, promised the Planning Commission in July that “if we find what we’re looking for, it’s a big payday for the county, it’s a big payday for us, it’s a big payday for everybody concerned.” 

And while Brown said the company would do what it was required to do regarding drilling, he also told the body that the special use permit is “a pretty expensive package in order to get a temporary permit that we may never do anything with.”

“In every state that we’ve operated in and every county that we’ve operated in, exploration is kind of exempt from some of the regulations,” he said, according to the county’s video of the meeting.

The potential financial windfall associated with the project resonated with at least one planning commissioner: minutes from a September Board of Supervisors-Planning Commission joint work session record Commissioner Patrick Bowe asking, “Why would we consider not thanking them for looking for gold? I hope they find all they want and come in here and apply for a mining operation.”

Others, however, including local groups like the Friends of Buckingham and environmental organizations like the League of Conservation Voters, are worried about the impacts such extractive operations could have. 

Gold mining poses “serious threats to water quality,” Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, told the Mercury. Besides the potential for heavy metals and chemicals like mercury and arsenic to seep into groundwater, he said, “these projects use a lot of water. They generate a lot of contaminated wastewater that has to be stored and pumped and treated.” 

Oba of the Friends of Buckingham pointed to recent water quality issues related to the Haile gold mine in South Carolina as an example. In September, that mine was slapped with a more than $11,000 fine from state regulators after discharging quantities of thallium, which can cause major organ damage, above the allowed limit numerous times into waterways

The situation is “reminiscent of the whole uranium fight in Virginia,” said Francis. “Some of the concerns are the same concerns we had with uranium mining.” 

But while uranium exploration required a permit from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, as does oil and gas exploration, DMME spokesperson Tarah Kesterson confirmed that gold exploration does not. 

Like any other type of mineral extraction, actual operations would trigger the need for a DMME permit, said Kesterson, though as of Monday no paperwork had been filed with the agency.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]