article from: Virginia Business Magazine – August, 1999:
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Steve Matteson photo
Willis Mountain’s noth face bears the scars from open-cut kyanite mining.
The world’s largest kyanite mine is in rural Buckingham. It makes few headlines and tons of profit.
By Kathleen F. Phalen
What is kyanite?
Kyanite — Al2 SiO5 — is a natural crystalline silicate of aluminum and one of the sillimanite group of minerals that also includes andalusite.
Cyanite, as it is also known, has the ability to refract heat at high temperatures and is used to produce spark plugs, high-temperature cookware, firebrick for steel mills, and anything else that requires a high melting point. Kyanite is the only mineral that irreversibly expands when heated, a property that s critical in ceramic and refractory applications.
Michael Potter, a geologist at the U.S. Department of the Interior, estimates that 90 percent of kyanite is used in monolithic refractories — furnaces where metal is melted, 55 percent for smelting and processing of ferrous metals, 20 percent for nonferrous metals, and 15 percent for glass making and ceramics. The remaining 10 percent is used for nonrefractory purposes.
Excavation is usually by open-pit mining, followed by grinding and flotation. Sand is a byproduct of this mining process.
The ore is brittle and splintery in appearance. Its color varies from blue to green, pink, white or yellow and usually has portions of white or silver. Sapphire-blue pieces of kyanite are favored by gemologists and used in jewelry, while others believe the ore has healing properties.
mountain1.jpg (46042 bytes) Steve MattesonWillis Mountain’s noth face bears the scars from open-cut kyanite mining.
The drive-in hamburger joint in Dillwyn seems to be the busiest place in town. A few blocks down the road, a man sits in a chair as if waiting for a row of abandoned storefronts to regain their past vibrance. Time has made its imprint and moved on, leaving the residents with little more than a Food Lion, a ballpark, a spattering of churches and streets with names like Goldmine Lane.
Take a right at the Food Lion, where Route 20 and Route 15 intersect, and the road takes you out of town. This flat section of Buckingham County is dotted with mobile homes surrounded by toys, rusting trucks and woodland. There s a handful of red-brick ranchers, a steady stream of tractor-trailers and the faint scent of sulfur and honeysuckle.
Just before the Goldmine Pentecostal Holliness Church a break in the trees reveals a 1,129-foot-high quartzite mountain. Thomas Jefferson could see this behemoth from Monticello on a clear day, but now the mountain has a shopping-mall-size bite missing from its middle. Ask anyone who lives in Dillwyn about the landmark, and they ll tell you with an almost eerie precision: “It s the kyanite mine.”
Dillwyn is home to the world s largest kyanite mining operation, which exports the ore across North America and overseas. Sand, which is a byproduct of kyanite production, is shipped to a foundry in Lynchburg via the privately owned Buckingham Branch Railroad.
Owned by Gene Dixon Jr. and other Dixon family members, Kyanite Mining Corp. employs 150 of the county s 14,700 residents, and it generates estimated annual revenues of $25 million. Sources familiar with the operation say it is among the most profitable private companies in Virginia.
“We are very fortunate to have them here,” says Buckingham County Administrator Rebecca Carter. “They give us good jobs, better jobs than we could otherwise have and good benefits and retirement plans. It is an honor having the mine in this county. … But they are very modest and don t want what they do publicized.” Dixon family members repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story. “We re not interested in an article about our operation,” says Guy Dixon, general manager and the boss s son. “We don t feel we deserve the attention.”
For the past 51 years, Kyanite Mining has remained a quiet cog in the commonwealth s industrial wheel: a multimillion-dollar silent achiever. Even geologists from the Department of the Interior have withheld numbers for U.S. kyanite production since 1948 — just three years after the late Gene B. Dixon Sr. bought out co-owners and became the mine s sole operator. Bob Verta, a Freedom of Information Act officer for the Department of the Interior, says Uncle Sam does not release the numbers because Kyanite Mining is currently the only U.S. mine that extracts the mineral.
So Virginia Business set out on its own mining expedition, and here s what we discovered.
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Kyanite Mining has two Virginia sites, the Willis Mountain location and the adjacent East Ridge, both in Buckingham County about 60 miles west of Richmond. The two Virginia mines yield about 132,000 short tons per year, a whopping 86 percent of the estimated worldwide output. That figure comes from a story in the June issue of Mining Engineering co-authored by Guy Dixon and Hank Jamerson, Kyanite Mining s product specialist.
The rest of the world s supply of kyanite comes from mines in China, India and the Ukraine. Although Virginia s piedmont region still holds large reserves of the mineral, Kyanite Mining Corp. also is exploring opportunities to extract the ore in Canada, where it has constructed a small pilot plant and begun excavating.
With Willis Mountain s north face bearing the scars from open-cut mining, Buckingham County residents joke that it may one day cease to exist. But in a rare interview in 1992 with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Gene Dixon Jr. said: “We ll be around several more decades. … We take out three or four hundred thousand tons of rock a year.”
Dixon s company owns and operates the processing plants for its mines. Some of the raw kyanite is ground and prepared for shipment at the mine site, while some gets shipped by truck to another location in Dillwyn, where it is calcined. In this process, water is removed from the clay that often co-exists with kyanite. The company soon will begin operating its third calcining operation in Buckingham County, tripling its capacity to produce high-quality mullite. It is during this process that fine-grain sand is produced. This provides Dixon with another revenue stream when the sand is sold through the Dixon Sand Co., which is also in Dillwyn.
mountain2.jpg (50715 bytes) Gene Dixon Sr. Memorial Park is a popular place for community events in Dillwyn.
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Born in 1943, Gene Dixon Jr. didn t stray too far from home when he attended Hampden-Sydney College in the mid-1960s. Although he didn t graduate, today Dixon is on the board of trustees of the Farmville school.
For the past three years, Dixon has ranked among The Virginia 100, this magazine s list of the wealthiest people in the commonwealth. We estimate his net worth at $200 million. In addition to Kyanite Mining Corp., Dixon owns The Cavalier, a 400-room hotel in Virginia Beach, and a major stake in the Bank of Charlotte. He also owns Dillard Park, a 600-acre industrial site in Amherst County, plus thousands of acres in other nearby counties.
Unlike the luxurious Cavalier, Dillwyn is a no-frills kind of place, and Gene Dixon Sr. Memorial Park is no exception. It features a baseball field, a small concession stand and a large gummy-looking pit that is perhaps a pond in better weather. Still, it seems this park is at the heart of the community. Posters advertising all kinds of community events, including the local beauty pageant, list the park as their venue. The Dixons donated the land for the park, and Carter, the county administrator, says the family members are good corporate citizens. They support local civic groups, schools and youth programs.
But having a kyanite mine in your back yard can have its downside, including the sulfur, rotten-egg-like smell, eye irritation and dust. Some neighbors were so unhappy they complained to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency that enforces the Clean Air Act.
That got Kyanite Mining a position on the Environmental Protection Agency s Clean Air Act violators list, where the company will remain until its two most recent violations are resolved. According to Jed Brown, an environmental manager for the Department of Environmental Quality, Kyanite Mining received a “notice of violation” on March 10, 1998, because information in the company s operating permit application did not match the findings of a state inspection. “A further review found that permits issued in 77, 82 and 85 were not adequate to meet the requirements of the regulation. … I don t anticipate any problems,” he says, “but the violation still hasn t been resolved.”
Brown says that complaints by neighbors sparked the initial investigation and that a Jan. 25 “notice of violation” was an outgrowth of the previous review. “We initiated a more thorough review that indicated they had never done emissions tests on some equipment,” he says. “They made the corrections, and they will be retested, but it hasn t been wrapped up yet.”
Kyanite Mining also has earned praise for its environmental efforts. In 1993, it won the non-coal category of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission Annual Reclamation Awards Program. The awards recognize companies and individuals who comply with regulatory requirements and apply innovative techniques to reclaim land following mining activities.
“Nobody likes a mine for a neighbor,” Dixon said in the 1992 interview. “But someone has to do it efficiently and consistently.”
And Dixon s mines show no signs of waning. Demand for kyanite will continue well into the next millennium, according to Michael J. Potter from the Department of the Interior. “The United States has gone from a position of dependence on foreign kyanite to that of a substantial net exporter of kyanite.”
© AUGUST 1999, Media General Business Publications Inc., publisher of Virginia Business Magazine