Experts discuss core sampling

Published 9:48 am Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Buckingham County Planning Commission, joined by the Board of Supervisors, listened Monday, Nov. 16, to a panel of experts who answered questions and provided insight on core sampling after public concern was sparked by Canadian-based company Aston Bay Holdings’ drilling for gold in the county.

Specialists largely agreed at the meeting that the type of unregulated gold drilling done by Aston Bay is likely harmless, with the chances of core sampling leading to the establishment of a gold mining operation estimated to be less than 5%.

As core sampling is not specifically permitted in Buckingham, Aston Bay was told to cease its drilling when officials discovered earlier this year the company had been doing its exploratory sampling for years without the knowledge of the county. But while core sampling isn’t permitted with a special use permit in an A-1 or A-C zoning district in Buckingham County, mining is. Some supervisors want to change that.

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One guest speaker at Monday’s meeting was State Geologist David Spears with the Department of Mining and Mineral Energy. Spears said core sampling typically involves the taking of rock samples using an industrial diamond-embedded steel bit and a small drill rig. The bit is spun by the drill rig and pushed down into the ground using water to cool the bit. The extracted core sample is a solid cylinder of rock which is then sent off to a laboratory which analyzes the samples for targeted minerals such as gold. The hole made by the extraction is typically sealed off using cement.

Spears said while mining is a highly regulated activity in Virginia, exploration by core drilling is unregulated throughout the commonwealth.

“It’s not regulated because it’s widely understood to be a harmless activity,” he highlighted.

While many Buckingham residents have expressed concern that Aston Bay’s activities could lead to the establishment of a gold mine, Spears was clear Monday that core sampling does not always lead to mining. In fact, it’s rare.

John Chermak, a geosciences professor at Virginia Tech, told officials the chances of gold drilling activities turning into a mine were less than 5%. Spears added he was aware of two other examples of prospecting in the county where drilling had occurred but no mines had been developed. He did say while Aston Bay was reporting numbers indicative of rich veins of gold, those veins were over a short distance of land.

Other Buckingham residents have worried Aston Bay’s drilling could be affecting the county’s aquifers, with some landowners near the drilling site off of Warminster Church Road reporting their wells were running dry.

Spears said while a pump test would be the only way to make certain, a fractured rock aquifer like what is seen in Buckingham would need to see many thousands of gallons of water pulled out of the ground to impact well water a mile off of the site of the well.

“As a scientist, I cannot imagine that process that puts water into the ground is going to cause a well to go dry,” he said.

Spears said water contamination due to the drilling was also highly unlikely, although a test would need to be conducted to verify such.

Although supervisors and commission members did ask experts questions regarding potential gold mine sizes and the likelihood of drilling leading to mining, gold mining and its potential environmental effects were not heavily discussed topics at Monday night’s meeting, with the focus of the conversation surrounding core sampling.

“I even hesitate to bring up the subject of mining, because really that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about exploration by core drilling,” Spears said. “Mining is a completely separate issue that would happen years or decades down the road and require a completely separate regulatory approval process. This is not a question about mining.”

Damien Fehrer, a mine inspector with the Department of Mining and Mineral Energy, added that with more than 400 mineral mines permitted in the state, most would not have been established without exploratory drilling to prove mineral deposits.

“Kyanite Mining would not be expanding that operation without core drilling,” Fehrer added.

As the Planning Commission members and supervisors discussed the insight provided by Monday’s guest panelists, some supervisors raised concerns about the fact that mining is actually already a permitted use in an A-1 zoning district in Buckingham.

District 4 Supervisor Jordan Miles said Monday that while he was aware the primary discussion was centered around core sampling, a common concern among constituents was the potential for core sampling to lead to mining. Miles said it didn’t seem like mining aligned with the values of a A-1 agricultural zone.

District 2 Supervisor Donnie Bryan proceeded to make a motion to direct the Planning Commission to schedule a public hearing to take the use of mining with a special use permit out of the A-1 and A-C districts in order to align with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The motion was seconded by Miles and passed with a 4-3 vote with Board Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Harry Bryant, Bryan, District 6 Supervisor Joe Chambers and Miles voting in favor and Board Vice Chairman and District 3 Supervisor Don Matthews, District 1 Supervisor Dennis Davis and District 7 Supervisor Danny Allen voting in opposition.

Some supervisors, Allen in particular, were angered by this motion, with Allen stating that getting rid of mining in A-1 and A-C districts would mean no other mineral mines would ever come to the county and provide similar jobs seen at sites like Kyanite Mining. Allen was also frustrated that a motion was made regarding mining when the subject of the night’s meeting was to address the issue of unregulated core sampling in the county.

Planning Commission Vice Chair John Bickford asked the group if it was feasible to address issues of unregulated core sampling in Buckingham by shifting the burden of making the county aware of the sampling to landowners. Bickford recommended that landowners could be made responsible to fill out a questionnaire with information of the activities when leasing land to a company such as Aston Bay that plans to perform core sampling.

“That would prevent someone from coming in and doing things without the county knowing,” Bryan added.

A motion was then made by Bryan and seconded by Miles to ask Bickford to work with County Attorney E.M. Wright Jr. on a document that could possibly be used to have property owners report back to the county with certain information should they lease their land to a company prepared to do core drilling of any kind. This information would then be brought to the Planning Commission for its consideration. The motion passed 6-1 with only Bryant voting in opposition.

Tuesday, Nov. 17, County Administrator Rebecca Carter provided additional clarification on the board’s motions, adding that after the Planning Commission’s hearing on removing mining from the A-1 and A-C districts, the commission will then make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.

Carter said while the board will consider the commission’s recommendation, supervisors will then schedule a hearing based on what they wish to do.

“The Board of Supervisors requests or directs the Planning Commission to look into matters in relation to the subdivision ordinance, the zoning ordinance and the Comprehensive Plan,” Carter said. “The Planning Commission does have authority to take up these matters on their own, so that is why this procedure was used.”

Carter added the county’s current Comprehensive Plan does not encourage industrial uses in an A-1 zoning district.

“The county is in the process of updating the Comp Plan, however, the present Comp Plan is the effective plan that needs to be followed,” Carter said. “I believe the action on the zoning last evening was to bring the zoning ordinance into compliance with the goals in the Comp Plan. It was not about Aston Bay, because we do not have an application from Aston Bay on the table that is being considered.

“Although core drilling was the main consideration last evening, the talk of mining the property, new jobs and tax revenues has been a big topic, and many residents felt the continued core drilling would lead to a mine.”