Commercial drilling now a by-right use

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 15, 2021

The Buckingham County Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 Monday, Jan. 11, to allow commercial core drilling as a by-right activity in A-1, A-C, M-1 and M-2 zoning districts.

The news comes after months of deliberation from county officials on how to address the issue of commercial core drilling/sampling activities by Canadian-based company Aston Bay Holdings in pursuit of gold in Buckingham County.

Aston Bay had been performing drilling activities in search of gold in Buckingham for several years on the property of the Weyerhaeuser timber company. It wasn’t until 2020 that citizens and officials became aware of the drilling operations.

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Since core sampling isn’t a permitted use in an Agricultural Zone according to the county zoning ordinance, Aston Bay was told to cease its operations.

But after hearing from a panel of geological experts this fall, officials were told by many that core sampling is widely considered a harmless activity that goes largely unregulated not only in the state but throughout the country.

For months citizens have urged the county to disallow any further drilling in the pursuit of gold, with many concerned Aston Bay’s exploratory sampling would lead to the eventual establishment of a gold mine in the county.

Residents were fearful of the potential economic and environmental effects an open pit gold mine could bring to Buckingham, and others claimed the drilling may be affecting the local water tables.

But experts told supervisors and residents alike that the chances of gold drilling leading to a mine were less than 5%.

Others argued putting limitations on a practice as common as core sampling, which is used for a variety of other mineral mining and architectural projects, would be a huge setback for other businesses looking to come to Buckingham.

At Monday night’s board meeting, officials received a large amount of emails, voicemails and even a citizen-made presentation, most of which were urging supervisors not to go forward with the zoning amendment.

After recommendation from the Planning Commission, District 4 Supervisor and Board Vice Chair Thomas Jordan Miles III offered the motion to make commercial core drilling a by-right activity, defining commercial core drilling as the exploration for the material, including but not limited to, mineral, stone, gas or rock, for commercial purposes, by core sampling/drilling.

The motion was seconded by District 2 Supervisor Donnie Bryan and passed 5-2, with only District 3 Supervisor and Board Chair Don Matthews and District 7 Supervisor Danny Allen voting no.

Wednesday, Jan. 13, Miles described the board’s action as a move “to allow a common activity to be permitted — core drilling for commercial purposes.”

He said the action taken Monday night essentially means one has the right to sample what’s under the ground on their property to determine its mineral characteristics.

“We heard from numerous experts from state agencies and groups, including the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Department of Environmental Quality, that stated this is a common and safe practice,” Miles said.

On Wednesday, Miles said while many of the comments on Monday night were geared toward the idea that a by-right use for commercial drilling would lead to the automatic permitting of a gold mine in Buckingham, the action the board took does not mean a gold mine is coming to the county.

He described the motion as a compromise to protect private property and environmental rights while remaining business friendly.

“Rest assured that mining, of any kind, is a special-permitted use in the A-1 district that would have to go through public hearings, vetting, testimony, permitting and potential conditions to protect human health and the environment if, in fact, a special use permit application were to be submitted, which has not taken place,” he said. “Mining is a highly regulated process at the state and federal level. And, again, the Board of Supervisors would hear from the Planning Commission, and the board would vote on that permit.

“It’s my opinion that the government doesn’t have an interest in regulating core sampling. That’s a personal property right and should be by-right.”