South Carolina gold mine plans in store for Kershaw

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 9, 2011 

KERSHAW -- Plans for a sprawling gold mine drew enthusiastic support last week from folks who said Kershaw needs the 800 jobs the mine promises -- despite what could be significant environmental impacts.

Romarco Minerals wants to dig what would be the largest gold mine in the eastern U.S., a more than 4,000-acre project at the site of a historic mine that closed more than 20 years ago near Kershaw.

The new, open-pit mine would be deeper, wider and have more impact on wetlands and creeks than past operations. But many locals said they're not worried.

Most who spoke at a hearing said the Canadian mining company is a good neighbor that will protect the landscape. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hearing drew about 200 people to a local recreation center.

"We really do need jobs," lifelong Kershaw resident Mildred Payne said. "We really trust Romarco and everything they've done here in Kershaw. We feel they are really working to make sure they are doing everything right for the people."

Retired schoolteacher Jeanette Pittman, who volunteers at a local charity, said 800 jobs would bring new life to a town that has suffered mightily since its long time employer, a major textile mill, closed two decades ago.

Pittman said more people are looking for food or money from her organization. But gold could change that, she said during a Corps open house before the hearing.

"We have people losing their homes, they don't have any kind of income -- it's sad," she said. "We're concerned about the environment, but it sounds like they (Romarco) have taken precautions."

One economic development official said Kershaw's unemployment rate is 30 percent, which would be about three times the state average. The mine has the support of Lancaster County industrial recruiters, the local chamber of commerce and the County Council, local officials said at the hearing.

Romarco Minerals, based in Toronto, has been aggressively buying land in the Kershaw area for several years. It now owns about 9,000 acres in and around the Haile Gold Mine site. The company has found large deposits of gold deep in the ground at the Haile site, but can't begin digging until it receives a federal wetlands permit from the Corps of Engineers.

Corps officials will use comments from the meeting in developing an extensive study on the mine's environmental impacts on rural Lancaster County. Ultimately, the Corps will use the study to decide if it should issue a permit to fill or dig up 162 acres of wetlands and about seven miles of streams. Corps officials said the amount of wetlands and streams to be affected by the mine is more than all the projects they've permitted -- combined -- from 2008 to 2010 in South Carolina.

From 2008 to 2010, the Corps granted permits for no more than 200 acres of wetlands to be filled for all projects, compared with 162 proposed for the Romarco mine. During the same time period, the Corps permitted less than two total miles of streams to be filled or impacted for all projects, compared to seven miles for the Romarco mine, according to Corps data provided Thursday to The State.

Some of the creeks would be covered by mounds of dirt and rocks unearthed from pits in the search for gold. Others would be dug up. The mining pits would be as deep as 840 feet, compared with previous mining pits that went only 100 feet under past operations, said Romarco's chief executive officer, Diane Garrett. The eight open pits collectively could be about one mile wide.

Environmentalists said those impacts should not be ignored as the Corps studies the gold-mining operation during the next year.

With the price of gold soaring to more than $1,700 an ounce, conservationists said other companies may seek to mine for gold in South Carolina -- a state with a legacy of mining for the precious metal. Today's gold-mining technology makes it easier to reach gold that could not be extracted long ago.

Not only are there concerns about wetlands, but there are also worries about the impact chemicals could have on groundwater and the quantity of groundwater that will be siphoned off, environmentalists said.

"Too often in the past South Carolina has not insisted on the best," said Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. "We have paid the price. We have garbage dumps, hazardous and nuclear waste dumps. We have high expectation for this (study) process."

Though Romarco would use cyanide, a chemical that can kill wildlife, Garrett said the toxic material will be neutralized with a treatment process. Any cyanide that goes into a waste pond, known as a "tailings pond," will be greatly diluted, she said before the meeting.

"Even if birds land in our ponds, they will be OK," Garrett said.

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