In the process of trying to reach an agreement to allow a giant Canadian mining operation to dig for gold in Lancaster County, the countys residents have good reason to believe theyre being sold out.
Romarco Minerals Inc., headquartered in Toronto, hopes to reopen the old Haile Gold Mine, which was in operation in Lancaster County off and on for 200 years. It closed in the early 1990s, but Romarco thinks it can make a profit mining the flecks of remaining gold that earlier miners couldnt get to.
The operation, however, would be devastating to hundreds of acres at the mine site. Romarco would dig up or fill 120 acres of wetlands and smother five miles of creeks in the county, excavating pits more than 800 feet deep.
Federal law requires companies such as Romarco to obtain permits to fill wetlands. Those applying for a permit to destroy wetlands must compensate for the loss by creating new wetlands or restoring them elsewhere so there is no net loss of wetlands.
But both state and federal policies usually encourage developers, miners and others to restore, create or preserve wetlands in the same watershed. Romarco, however, has proposed a mitigation plan that is both in another watershed and mostly in another county.
Romarco has offered, in return for ravaging Lancaster County, to protect nearly 3,700 acres of prime riverfront land in Richland County for a nature preserve. The plan would preserve Cooks Mountain, a rare land formation on the Wateree River, and the nearby Goodwill Plantation.
The only direct benefit of the mitigation plan to Lancaster County would be the addition of almost 700 acres of the Rainbow Ranch to the Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve in Lancaster. The ranch is near the home of the Carolina heel splitter, one of the rarest mussels in the nation.
At least parts of all this property now could be developed if they are not bought and preserved. Environmentalists would love to see all these areas protected from development and made more accessible to the public.
But several conservation groups have hesitated to fully endorse Romarcos plan. The mine, if it is approved, could become the largest east of the Mississippi River, and the damage to wetlands and creeks in Lancaster County would be enormous and long-lasting.
It is not the least bit surprising that many of the 300 people who attended a public hearing on the mine proposal last week stepped up to say they thought the county would be getting a raw deal. Many speakers at the meeting, which was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, complained that the mining operation could dry up wells and pollute the environment with toxic wastewater.
Im not for trading land in another county for our land, Lancaster County resident Morris Russell said. It would be a great project for Richland County, but I pay taxes in Lancaster County.
There is something fundamentally wrong about offering to preserve natural resources in one county in return for destroying them in another county. In a sense, it smacks of extortion.
The cost of preserving 3,700 acres of prime real estate in Richland County would be enormously expensive. That hints at how valuable Romarco believes the old mine site in Lancaster County could be.
The mining operation could bring up to 800 jobs to Lancaster County, which would be a boon for the county. But many of those jobs would be temporary.
Residents need to determine whether this proposal is worthwhile to the county over the long run, factoring in the potential environmental risks it entails. And if they decide they want the mine in their backyard, they should be asking for more in return, including other environmental projects in their county, not somewhere else.