Buckingham County residents warn of gold mining impacts

Published 1:09 pm Tuesday, August 9, 2022

DILLWYN – Karuna Kreps just bought a home in Buckingham County, hoping to retire there. But now she’s concerned over what a gold mine, and drilling in general, would do to her property. 

“The well at my new home is insufficient before a mine comes in,” Kreps said. “I’m doing all these improvements for a healthy well and in a few years, it could be contaminated with toxins. It’s horrifying. This is like some type of apocalyptic situation, happening where I hope to live.” 

The problem, she told state officials on Aug. 3, is that this isn’t a situation where mistakes can be fixed. 

“Once contaminated, the sites are forever toxic,” she said. “You can’t call in EPA for clean-up.” 

Heidi Berthoud agreed. Having lived in Buckingham County for more than 30 years, Berthoud doesn’t understand why people believe the area needs a new mine. Much like Kreps, she’s concerned about contamination. 

“There are existing mines in Buckingham,” Berthoud said. “There is an abandoned mine over Route 70 that’s full of mercury and we can’t clean that up, so why would we invite more?” 

The two women were among several residents who came out to a community listening session Aug. 3, part of a fight that’s been going on for more than two years. 

How did Buckingham County get here? 

In 2020, Canadian company Aston Bay Holdings announced plans to do some exploratory drilling. At the time, Aston Bay signed a deal with the Weyerhaeuser company to drill on property off Warminster Church Road in Buckingham County.

In a press release, company officials declared their drilling confirmed “a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham, as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.” In other words, they found enough to keep their interest. 

But for many Buckingham residents like Kreps and Berthoud, the prospect of a gold mine doesn’t help. They’re concerned that the land will be poisoned, seeing what they believe are short-term profits and long-term consequences. That’s where Del. Elizabeth Guzman comes in. The Virginia state delegate, D-Prince William, filed HB 2213 and the bill passed in 2021. 

Setting up requirements

That new law requires several things before any gold mining takes place. First, a work group had to be set up to study the issue. The idea is to evaluate the impacts of gold mining on the area. The workgroup looks into the effects gold mining will have on the environment, including public health in general and the air and water quality.

Are existing regulations strong enough to protect air and water quality? Are there areas where mining needs to be banned? To answer those and other questions, experts in mining, hydrology, toxicology and other fields are being brought in. Also representatives of potentially affected communities in localities with significant deposits of gold are to be included. 

A report has to be put together and turned in to the General Assembly by Dec. 1 of this year. 

That’s what was happening Aug. 3 in Buckingham. State officials held the latest in a series of listening sessions, asking local residents to weigh in. 

Jessica Sims of Appalachian Voices asked how gold mining would affect the local watershed. 

“As we know drinking water is not an unlimited resource and we’re looking at the James River, which is Virginia’s largest river, the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, provides drinking water for 2.7 million people and brings millions of dollars into Virginia’s economy,” she said. “We’re especially concerned about that and the potential impacts on the 3 million people who live in the 10 thousand square miles within that watershed.”

Kaite Whitehead, a resident in Pittsylvania County where Aston Bay is already drilling for copper and zinc, asked if anyone was listening or taking note of what community members were saying regarding this project.

“Today has made it clear that regulations need to be updated for new concerns,” Whitehead said. “[We] need to protect public health, safety and welfare. [We] need regulations done with careful scrutiny, proposed in and passed in Virginia.” 

What happens now? 

The Buckingham Board of Supervisors voted July 11 for County Administrator Karl Carter to draft a gold mining ordinance. The goal was to bring it forward in the August meeting. This ordinance would set parameters for businesses and others looking to come to Buckingham County to mine gold. You can read more about the proposal later this week in the Herald. 

There will be another chance for concerned citizens to voice their opinions about gold mining in Buckingham. According to Michael Skiffington, director of policy and planning with Virginia Energy, the next meeting will be from 9 a.m. to noon on Friday, Aug. 26 at a location to be determined. 

They plan to have at least two additional meetings before the Dec. 1 deadline. Citizens can also submit comments to goldstudy@energy.virginia.gov and on the comment forum at townhall.virginia.gov. Past meetings are available for viewing by clicking here