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In January, my colleague Dan Holmes wrote to you about the toxic legacy left by historic gold mining at the proposed Wilderness Crossing residential development site in Orange County. We had learned that none of the historic gold mine sites located on the property in question had been closed and cleaned up – a process called “reclamation.”
The development proposal submitted by KEG Associates III, if approved, would be the largest land rezoning in county history. Beyond our concerns about the impact of this proposal on public services and Wilderness National Battlefield Park, there are a lot of unanswered questions related to the immediate risks these mines pose to public health and safety.
However the applicant has come back, in a letter to the county dated January 26, with what they’re referring to as an “outline of approach strategy” for evaluating the mines. We are still reviewing this new information, but what jumps off the page is that the first phase of the applicant’s “general” evaluation of the mine sites would not start until after the project is rezoned. In other words, “trust us, we’ll look into it later…”
What can you do?
The public deserves to have full information about the risks of putting a development of this scale on a site with this level of contamination. Contact the Orange Board of Supervisors and ask them to initiate a transparent and robust information session, with support of state agency experts, related to the level of potential contamination from historic gold mining.
The role of local government
Orange County has a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents. And while Orange County’s director of planning services has characterized the applicant’s letter as purely informative and not a proffer, it’s clear the applicant wants to pursue the rezoning before the full nature and extent of the contamination is determined.
Instead, we hope that Orange County hits ‘pause’ in regards to the rezoning and provides residents of the county and the Route 3 environs more information. Specifically, we would ask the county to provide a public briefing on the issue and request assistance from the relevant state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Energy and Department of Health. The residents of this area deserve an opportunity to have their concerns recognized in advance of any rezoning.
Based on the amount of gold extracted from the Vaucluse mine alone, this may be the most toxic site in Orange County and likely the most contaminated historic gold mine in the state. It is critical to gain a greater understanding of what’s at stake before moving forward with grand development schemes that could put human health and safety at risk, including the nature and extent of the contamination, the level of reclamation possible and the highest and best use of the property after cleanup.
I hope you’ll take a moment to weigh in with Orange County and please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.
Orange County Field Representative
The Piedmont Environmental Council