This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. It is presented as part of the Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy which took place April 20-21, 2023.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
The biggest story Brian Carlton has tracked since becoming editor of the Farmville Herald is one that might come as a surprise to most Virginians: the possibility that mining companies might resume digging for gold as was once commonplace in the 1800s and even into the 1940s.
The Herald is a twice-a-week newspaper based in Farmville, home to Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College. It covers Cumberland and Prince Edward counties and the town of Buckingham. It was in Buckingham where a Canadian mining company, Aston Bay, announced in April 2019 that its exploratory drilling had uncovered four veins of gold in forestland owned by the Weyerhaeuser lumber company.
Gold actually can still be found along Virginia’s “gold-pyrite belt,” a narrow, 140-mile stretch that runs from Fairfax County to the bottom of Buckingham near Appomattox. Alarmed state lawmakers considered a temporary ban but instead arranged for a study by top scientists.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel concluded that gold mining would raise “a host of environmental and public health issues” that Virginia’s mining regulations were ill-equipped to handle.
Carlton–who also is an editor for two other Boone Newspapers, the Kenbridge-Victoria Dispatch and the Charlotte Gazette–has interviewed the Canadian company’s CEO and written more than a half-dozen in-depth articles on the controversy since arriving in August.
The 42-year-old has been a reporter and editor for more than a half-dozen small papers in a two-decade career, including stints as editor of two Virginia dailies, the Martinsville Bulletin and the News-Virginian in Waynesboro.
In addition to himself, the Herald now has one reporter, a vacancy it is trying to fill and six freelancers. “We pretty much cover everything, the school board, county supervisors’ meetings, different features throughout the area. If people email us questions, we try to get those questions answered.”
While Buckingham is among the six Virginia counties described as a news desert in a Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism State of Local News report, Carlton said it is not. Even with so few reporters, “we really haven’t had to not cover anything.”The Herald covers community events and high school sports, but “our bread and butter is asking questions and looking into things,” he said.