COLUMBIA — firstname.lastname@example.org
Concerned about plans to make Cook’s Mountain a state nature preserve, Richland County threatened this week to challenge environmental permits for one of the largest gold mines in the Eastern United States.
Cook’s Mountain, a natural landmark in lower Richland County, is being dangled as compensation for the scars that will be left from the gold mine in Lancaster County. Canadian company Romarco Minerals Inc. offered to buy the mountain and an adjacent plantation, then deed it to the state as a protected area, to offset the mine’s impact.
But Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson said it would be better for the county to own Cook’s Mountain – instead of the state Department of Natural Resources, as proposed by Romarco Minerals.
The council voted unanimously late Tuesday to appeal a federal wetlands permit and a state water quality certification, “if necessary,” according to the motion by Jackson. First, the county would try to negotiate with federal and state regulators, as well as the mine’s owners, over questions it has about the Cook’s Mountain proposal.
Reached Thursday, Jackson said he fears the Department of Natural Resources would restrict public access. The county should have been involved in discussions about the plan to offset the mine’s impacts, he said.
“Cook’s Mountain is in Richland County,” Jackson said. “The DNR made a deal that the gold mine people would give them total control of Cook’s Mountain. The citizens in the area would have limited access to something directly in their neighborhood.
“Why can’t they give it to Richland County?”
County Councilman Greg Pearce, however, said the council’s vote Tuesday will be revisited and likely changed next week. Despite the vote, he said the council’s intent was not to appeal the permits, only to have a full understanding of the proposal. He said he doesn’t care if the county owns the mountain, as long as it is protected for public use and the top of it is not developed.
County Council chairman Kelvin Washington said, “We’re looking for clarity on what kind of public access there would be to the property.”
Natural Resources biologist Bob Perry said it’s “preposterous”’ to say his agency would not provide public access. Cook’s Mountain and nearby Goodwill Plantation would make up 3,700 acres along the Wateree River.
“Public access on DNR-owned properties is of paramount importance to us,” Perry said. “We would envision a very, very high level of public use opportunities there.”
Perry said the state-level department is better suited to manage Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation than Richland County because the agency already oversees numerous wildlife areas in South Carolina. The property would be open for hunting, hiking and fishing, he said. But he said he’s willing to talk to the county about its concerns.
Romarco says it will spend some $23 million buying Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will grant a wetlands permit for its gold mine on 4,500 acres near the town of Kershaw. It also will acquire about 700 acres near the mine site in Lancaster County and give the state about $9 million to manage the three properties.
Some Lancaster County residents have balked at the plan, saying Richland County will benefit at Lancaster County’s expense. The mine site near Kershaw is about 60 miles from Richland.
Richland County Council’s vote, however, for the first time shows dissatisfaction with the plan in the Columbia area, where 85 percent of the land would be preserved.
That left conservationist Ann Timberlake wanting to know more about the county’s concerns.
“I would definitely question what the motive is,” said Timberlake, a Columbia resident and leader of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “As a resource that is of this scale, the protected area would argue for state management.”
Potentially $3 billion to be made
Diane Garrett, Romarco’s chief executive officer, said she has heard this week from the county. But Garrett said the company is “indifferent” to who ultimately owns the property, as long as it is acceptable to offset the mine’s impacts. She said Romarco is willing to continue discussions.
Richland County has had opportunities to buy Cook’s Mountain but passed on spending money to make it a publicly owned area.
Romarco’s plan to dig for the precious metal in Lancaster County involves reopening the historic Haile Gold Mine, which operated off and on for parts of 200 years. The old mine closed last in the 1990s. Romarco, headquartered in Toronto, also wants to expand the mine site.
With gold prices high, the company stands to make some $3 billion excavating tiny flecks of gold not dug up by past miners. But the environmental impact will be larger than most development projects in South Carolina.
About 120 acres of wetlands will be dug up or filled and about five miles of streams will be buried in rock from deep mining pits. At least one of the pits is more than 800 feet, making it one of the deepest pits ever excavated in South Carolina, according to the Corps of Engineers. Questions also have arisen about the mine’s impact on the endangered Carolina heelsplittter mussel.
The Corps won’t make a decision on whether to issue a wetlands permit for the project until next year, at the earliest. The agency is studying the impact of drawing down groundwater to keep mining pits from filling with water during the mining process.