Lancaster County gold mine deal could protect Richland County gems

sfretwell@thestate.comJuly 19, 2013 

— and Dawn Hinshaw

A gold-mining company is offering to preserve Cook’s Mountain and an adjacent riverfront plantation in Lower Richland County in exchange for permission to build in southern Lancaster County what could become the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River.

The plan by Canada-based Romarco Minerals, which needs federal and state approval, could ease concerns in the Columbia area about the future of Cook’s Mountain, a rare land formation on the Wateree River. As a result of its sale in 2012 to landfill operator Republic Services, the scenic property no longer is accessible to the public.

But the gold-mining company’s proposal would change that, said Bob Perry, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Cook’s Mountain and adjacent Goodwill Plantation would become a publicly accessible state nature preserve, he said.

The gold mine’s plan is designed to bolster the company’s efforts to dig up an unusually large amount of wetlands in Lancaster County for the gold mine – a plan that has drawn concern from the DNR and conservationists.

Perry said many of his agency’s worries were eased with Romarco’s proposal to protect the nearly 3,700 acres in Richland County. The proposal was released to the public Friday.

“This is an enormous step forward,” he said, noting that the deal would protect land in the Midlands, an area of South Carolina lacking in state-owned nature preserves. “These kinds of opportunities don’t come along very often.”

‘A good move’

Still, while Richland County would benefit with newly protected land, Lancaster County would still feel the impact of mining for gold.

Romarco’s proposal for the gold mine relies on chewing up an unusually large amount of wetlands and creeks to dig up the precious metal. The proposed mine would bury some five miles of creeks and fill or dig up 120 acres of wetlands near the town of Kershaw.

That proposal is one of the largest in South Carolina today. Most wetlands-filling proposals by development are a fraction of that. Romarco is seeking a federal wetlands permit that will be discussed at an Aug. 20 meeting in Kershaw.

Gold mine officials were unavailable Friday, but Perry said the idea is for Romarco to acquire the Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill sites, then deed the property to the Department of Natural Resources. No sale of either property showed up Friday in county real estate records.

Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation border about six miles of the winding Wateree River, which separates Richland and Sumter counties.

The plan calls for the purchase of 1,132 acres around Cook’s Mountain and 2,559 acres of the 3,232-acre Goodwill property owned by Larry Faulkenberry. The properties, about 20 miles upstream from Congaree National Park, contain extensive wildlife and plants, some of which are rare, along with about 1,500 acres of wetlands.

Most of Cook’s Mountain already has been protected from development through what’s called a conservation easement – but not the highest 30 acres, which rise about 260 feet above the river. The current no-development agreement for the rest of the Cook’s Mountain property also has exemptions for timber harvesting and some residential construction, according to documents filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The deal would protect the highest 30 acres of Cook’s Mountain and the portion of Goodwill Plantation not currently under conservation easement.

Faulkenberry in 2005 marketed a portion of the Goodwill property as a high-end development of 30 homes on million-dollar lots with connecting equestrian trails. High ground at the core of the property was subdivided, but county real estate records indicate only one six-acre lot was sold.

According to Romarco’s plan, Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation would fall under the state’s Heritage Trust program that protects property with rare species, unusual land formations or historic value. The majority of Heritage Trust properties allow some public access. The mitigation deal would set up a $4.5 million endowment to manage the properties and provide an additional $4.9 million to benefit the endangered heelsplitter mussel in Lancaster County.

The plan to offset the mine’s impacts in Lancaster County follows discussions with state and federal agencies, as well as nonprofit groups about prime sites for preservation. Romarco’s plan caught some Richland County conservationists by surprise when questioned Friday by The State newspaper.

The biggest proponent of preserving the mountain, former owner Yancey McLeod, said he was shocked that he hadn’t been brought into discussions about the proposal.

“I certainly hope and pray it includes all of the sensitive and special ecosystems and plant communities and habitats found at Cook’s Mountain,” McLeod said.

Columbia lawyer and conservation advocate Ken Driggers, who was part of the negotiations when Richland County recently considered buying the Cook’s Mountain property, said he knew nothing about the proposal that was released to the public Friday morning by the Corps of Engineers.

“Any move that results in Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation being protected and accessible to the public is a good move,” Driggers said.

Decision awaits statement

The Cowasee Basin Task Force, which was formed to protect the natural areas along the Congaree, Wateree and Santee rivers, has listed Goodwill as a linchpin property whose protection should be a high priority.

Richard Darden, a Corps of Engineers official who ultimately will have a say in whether the wetlands can be filled for the gold mine, said the corps generally prefers that plans to offset lost wetlands protect or restore wetlands in the same watershed.

In this case, the gold mine site is in a different watershed than Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation, nearly 60 miles away. Darden said the company was having difficulty finding adequate property in the Kershaw area to offset the mine’s impacts.

Still, Darden said, offering to protect land in different watersheds is not unheard of. More than 10 years ago, the corps signed off on a plan to protect Sandy Island and surrounding wetlands in Georgetown County for road construction projects in Horry and Charleston counties.

Darden said his agency will review the proposal but will not make a decision until an environmental impact statement on the project has been completed. He encouraged the public to attend the Aug. 20 meeting.

He said he was not familiar enough with the details of the conservation easement on Cook’s Mountain to say if that would prevent his agency from signing off on the plan, since much of the mountain already is protected.

Darden said Romarco has been working for months on the wetlands offset plan after receiving criticism early on. The company also has scaled back the amount of wetlands it wants to dig or fill for the gold mine.

Romarco’s mine, which would reopen the historic Haile Gold Mine, has been touted by the company as potentially the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi. It would dig open pits that extend a mile wide as deep as 840 feet in places.

Company officials say the mine would provide up to 800 permanent and temporary jobs. Business leaders in Lancaster County have championed the mine as a way to revive the local economy in a community where jobs are scarce.

Romarco proposes to reopen the Haile Gold Mine to get tiny flecks of gold that could not be dug up during previous mining operations. The company’s efforts have been driven by high gold prices, although Romarco has slowed some of its work in Kershaw as gold prices have dropped in recent months.

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