The small farms and modest homes set among the southern Piedmont's rolling fields and woodlands normally enjoy a country-style seclusion, much cherished around here. So when officials threatened to build Virginia's first big toxic-chemical dump on a scenic county ridge, Buckingham fought back--and some say, taught the state a political lesson.

"They're going to think twice in Richmond before they mess with us again," says Sandra Moss, a Buckingham protester. Some state officials agree. The dump's opponents derailed Virginia's plans by stirring up a far-flung controversy marked by a court battle, angry public hearings, legislative criticism and government reversals. Last month, Buckingham sealed its hard-won victory by purchasing the 125-acre site. County officials say no chromium, cadmium, arsenic or lead will ever be buried there.

As states throughout the nation search for ways to dispose of hazardous trash, the bitter conflict in Buckingham, a sparsely inhabited rural county about 125 miles southwest of Washington, provides a textbook example of how poor, nonindustrial areas are resisting efforts to become dumping grounds for the nation's urban industries. The "traditional approach" to finding such sites, says a study by the National Governors' Association, "is not working in most states."

For Virginia, the battle focused renewed attention on the state's much-criticized efforts to deal with toxic and other dangerous substances--an issue that has dogged officials ever since damaging Kepone pesticide abuses were brought to light in the mid-1970s.

"If we learned anything from Buckingham County, it's how not to proceed," says Susan G. Dull, executive director of Virginia's Solid Waste Commission, a study agency that opposed the state's now-discarded strategy.

For Buckingham, the long-running controversy lingers. In recent weeks, farmers and homeowners have packed the stately Jeffersonian courthouse here in the tiny county seat of Buckingham, to prod their local government. The financially strapped county figures that its victory cost around $250,000, including the $150,000 purchase price for the site along with legal and engineering fees. Some property owners blame these expenses for helping to boost real estate and other tax rates.

Waste already dumped in the county also is prompting fears. Mason Harlow, who lives near the county's eastern edge, showed up at a crowded Board of Supervisors meeting a few nights ago to demand curbs on the disposal in nearby trenches of oil sludge from a pipeline.

"It's got lead and other stuff in it," he asserted. "I don't want it around my house." Harlow worries that his well water may be contaminated.

J.F. Love Jr., who owned the land that was to become Virginia's toxic-waste dump, complains that he took a financial beating. Stablex Corp., a British-controlled disposal company, had offered $700,000 to lease Love's site, according to a lawyer for the company. The state would have paid Love an additional sum, based on the tract's market value. In all, Love says, he may have lost close to $1 million.

"I felt I was doing something good for the county," contends Love, a retired forester. A disposal plant, he notes, could mean tax revenue, jobs and commercial growth. "It got nasty and emotional."

Stymied at Buckingham, Virginia health officials have started drafting plans for picking new disposal sites, amid predictions of renewed controversy. Their attempts may be further complicated by the state's parallel search for a possible burial spot for radioactive waste, a similarly volatile issue.

"We're not trying to steamroller any community," promises William F. Gilley, the state waste administrator who caught much of the political flak at Buckingham.

Why communities here and across the country oppose hazardous-trash dumps, incinerators and treatment plants has been long evident. They fear poisoning of water supplies, explosions, trucking accidents, health risks and air pollution. They worry that property values will drop. They think that the plants are ugly and will attract other undesirable industries. And they do not want to be known as regional or statewide dumping grounds.

Why Virginia needs to establish its own hazardous-waste facilities is less clear. Some industry executives, state officials and environmentalists are arguing there is a need for several disposal sites around the state to handle the hundreds of thousands of tons of acids, toxic chemicals, flammable liquids and other dangerous waste that the state's industries produce.

Economics appears to be a key factor. Since Virginia has no major disposal plant for hazardous garbage, much of the state's industrial refuse is trucked to dumps in Alabama, South Carolina, Maryland and elsewhere. As shipping charges rise, state officials contend, the added costs may jeopardize local industries and deter other companies from opening plants in Virginia.

"Virginia should have a disposal site--and soon," asserts Virginia Manufacturers Association President Zack C. Dameron Jr. "Being competitive is the name of the game." The E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. plant near Richmond, for example, could save at least $250,000 a year in trucking costs if a disposal site were available in the state, says the plant's safety, health and environmental affairs manager, Richard L. Cook, a member of an industry and environmental panel studying the issue.

Some officials also argue that states with disposal facilities enventually may move to ban or limit out-of-state waste shipments. Maryland already has imposed such restrictions at its state-owned Hawkins Point dump in South Baltimore. In addition, regulations scheduled to be issued soon by the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to clamp down on some existing waste-handling facilities, increasing the demand for new disposal sites.

How many sites may be needed in Virginia remains to be settled, partly because the state has no comprehensive data about the volume of its waste, as critics are quick to point out.

Some health officials and environmentalists argue that building new disposal plants also may help deter illegal dumping, an issue that has stirred concern in the state since the 1970s. Allied Chemical Corp. has paid more than $15 million in court-ordered penalties and damages to injured workers for its discharges of Kepone into the James River at Hopewell. Cleanup work still is under way to remove toxic mercury from southwestern Virginia's Holston River after improper disposal more than a decade ago at a now-defunct Olin Corp. plant.

Recently, a disposal worker was killed in an allegedly illegal toxic chemical operation in Hanover County, north of Richmond. Alleged abuses at a disposal site in Culpeper prompted a federal court battle. A Maryland paint company settled an illegal-dumping dispute in rural Caroline County south of Fredericksburg by paying about $35,000, mostly in cleanup costs.

Although Virginia has moved more slowly than many states, it recently has taken steps to curb abuses. It has adopted more stringent regulations and tougher penalties for illegal dumping. It has increased its regulatory bureau from a single employe in 1978 to 10 full-time staffers, plus some part-time help from other agencies. Still, state and federal officials say, the Virginia bureau remains too short-staffed to start issuing waste permits, the state's next step in the nationwide Resource Conservation and Recovery Act program. Virginia's permits apparently will have to be handled by federal officials.

"The state's enforcement capability is anemic," asserts Del. George W. Grayson (D-Williamsburg), a frequent sponsor of environmental legislation.

The Buckingham clash encompassed several of these issues, from the Old Dominion's desires for continued industrial growth to public complaints about slipshod government planning and suspected health dangers.

When Buckingham fought back, it accused the state of two key failings: No state standards existed for choosing disposal sites, and the state had not searched its own property holdings to see if any were suitable. A state judge temporarily restrained the state, asserting, "This is the most asinine-handled matter I've ever seen in my life." The lower-court order later was overturned on procedural grounds.

At the center of the dispute was Love's heavily wooded site, once used as a nursery. It lies atop a ridge about four miles east of this county seat, surrounded by neatly kept homes, with Spear Mountain hazily visible in the distance. In recent years, Love had used about 3 1/2 acres in the middle of the tract as a landfill, and had begun negotiations to try to sell it to several waste companies. His moves had already stirred opposition from homeowners, who feared the poisoning of groundwater and streams from furniture-manufacturing solvents already dumped there.

Today at the former landfill, rusted waste barrels lie exposed amid a glue-like aroma in an open trench. The county has padlocked the gate. Engineers have sunk four 70-foot wells to test groundwater. But neighbors' fears have scarcely abated.

"I want the thing monitored," says county surveyor Carroll Gillespie, whose farm is just below the site. "We want to know what's in there."