Lancaster County residents: Gold mine land plan a bad deal

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 20, 2013 

  • The proposal

    Romarco Minerals wants to build in Lancaster County what eventually could become the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River. To achieve this, the Canadian-based company proposes:

    • Digging up or filling in 120 acres of wetlands and smothering file miles of creeks in Lancaster County for the mine.

    • In exchange, saving nearly 3,700 acres for a state nature preserve along the Wateree River in Lower Richland County.

— Worried about the effects an expansive gold mine will have on the landscape, some Lancaster County residents questioned Tuesday why so little land is being set aside in their community to offset the scars from metals mining.

Romarco Minerals Inc., a Canadian mining company, proposes to protect nearly 3,700 acres or prime riverfront land in Richland County for a nature preserve in exchange for damaging wetlands and creeks in the Kershaw area of Lancaster County.

All told, Romarco’s mining plan will destroy up to 120 acres of wetlands and smother up to five miles of creeks as the gold mine pits are excavated to create the largest gold digging operation east of the Mississippi River.

The mine, said many speakers at a public hearing in Kershaw, could dry up wells and pollute the environment with toxic wastewater. Most of those speaking Tuesday raised questions about the impact on the Kershaw area. Nearly 300 people attended the hearing.

For people like Morris Russell, Romarco’s plan to protect Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation in Lower Richland doesn’t do his community much good. Preserving so much land in Richland County means Lancaster County will suffer the brunt of the damage without adequate compensation, he and others suggested.

“I’m not for trading land in another county for our land,” Russell said. “It would be a great project for Richland County, but I pay taxes in Lancaster County.”

Kershaw resident Jeff LeGrand called the proposal a “short term, destructive project for our community.” Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, also questioned the plan, asking federal regulators whether the proposal could be changed to better serve the Lancaster County community.

“Richland County can take care of itself,” she said. “I’m advocating for Lancaster County.”

More than 80 percent of the land to be saved is in the Columbia area, some 60 miles away from the mine site. About 15 percent of the land to be protected near the mine is in the Kershaw community, which is about 20 miles north of Camden.

But Diane Garrett, Romarco’s president and chief executive, said the Richland properties are large, ecologically important and were in danger of development. Most of Cook’s Mountain is protected by conservation easements, but not the top 30 acres. Goodwill has more land that could be developed.

“Private landowners had those properties for sale, they were going to be sold to somebody and possibly developed,” Garrett said after the hearing. She also noted that Romarco was establishing a nearly $10 million endowment to manage the properties and protect endangered mussels in the Kershaw area.

Tuesday’s hearing drew nearly 300 people to a community center in this small community that once took pride in the local textile mill. Today, Kershaw suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in the state and is badly in need of jobs, say the mine’s boosters.

Romarco’s plan to mine the area would actually reopen and expand the old Haile Gold Mine, which operated off and on from the early 1800s to the early 1990s. The company says reopening the mine would employ 700 to 800 people. Many of the jobs would be temporary but several hundred would be permanent, the company has said.

The company’s plan to offset the environmental impacts by preserving property in other places results from a federal requirement that it obtain a wetlands permit. Anyone wanting to destroy wetlands for a development project, mine or other purposes, must offset the loss by creating, restoring or preserving wetlands elsewhere.

Usually, however, wetlands must be protected in the same watershed. In this case, most of the land to be protected is in the Wateree River watershed of lower Richland County. Only about 700 acres to be protected will be near Kershaw.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they’re considering the plan, which is unusual, but not unprecedented. Sandy Island, a coastal landform, was used in the 1990s to offset wetlands losses in Horry County, even though it was in a different watershed.

“We are looking for the alternative that has the least environmental damage, while meeting the project’s purpose,” said Richard Darden, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Darden and Bob Perry, an official with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, emphasized that the wetlands offset plan will protect a landscape of undeveloped and important natural areas.

While small compared to acreage at Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill, Perry also said the approximately 700 acres to be protected in the Lancaster County area are significant to saving endangered Carolina heelsplitter mussels. Heelsplitters live almost exclusively in the central parts of South Carolina and North Carolina.

Romarco Minerals, headquartered in Toronto, plans to dig what could become the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River. The mine would contain multiple pits some of which would be 840 feet deep.

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