Preserving Cook’s Mountain won’t offset affect of Lancaster County gold mine, say environmentalists

sfrettwell@thestate.com May 17, 2014 

— One of the South’s leading environmental groups has criticized plans to create a waterfront nature preserve near Columbia as compensation for digging what would be the largest gold mine in the eastern United States.

Saving Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation on the Wateree River isn’t nearly enough to offset the scars the proposed Romarco Minerals gold mine would inflict on the landscape of Lancaster County, between Columbia and Charlotte, according to a May 9 letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center to federal regulators.

Contending that the Romarco mine will affect a “staggering” amount of wetlands and creeks, the law center urged federal regulators to study the project more carefully before deciding on permits the mine needs to begin operation.

“This proposal, which would be the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River, amounts to a large and risky experiment,” according to the law center’s letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Charleston district office. The letter called the mine’s potential environmental impacts “astonishing in scale.”

The center questioned whether state regulators are up to the task of overseeing the mine if it is established.

Romarco, a Canadian corporation, plans to dig about eight mining pits – one to be more than 800 feet deep – while lowering groundwater levels, disturbing 1,100-acres of wetlands and affecting 24 miles of creeks. The scale of the project and its environmental impacts are considered unprecedented in South Carolina, as the law center noted in its letter.

To compensate for the losses of wetlands and creeks on its more than 4,500-acre mining site, Romarco has offered to provide 3,700-acres in lower Richland County and 700 acres in Lancaster County for permanent preservation as public nature preserves. The Richland land includes Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation, both of which would become a state-managed area open for hiking, fishing and hunting.

Some environmentalists in South Carolina are conflicted about whether to oppose the gold mine because they favor making Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation into a nature preserve. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources supports the gold mine near Kershaw because it considers the land Romarco offered in Richland County to be so significant.

The law center’s comments are some of the strongest challenging the gold mine that have been made public. A key concern is that Romarco’s plan to offset the gold mine’s effect on wetlands involves saving land in another watershed. The Richland County property is more than an hour’s drive from the mine near Kershaw, about halfway between Columbia and Charlotte. It is unusual to preserve land in one watershed to offset the loss of wetlands in another watershed, the letter noted.

“Those are properties of statewide significance, no doubt, but I don’t think it’s enough given the extraordinary scale of impact we are talking about here,” law center attorney Chris DeScherer said. DeScherer said that much of Cook’s Mountain already is protected under a conservation easement established by private landowners years ago.

Cook’s Mountain is one of the taller natural land formations in central South Carolina, rising hundreds of feet above the flat Wateree River flood plain. Goodwill, adjacent to Cook’s Mountain, is filled with creeks, historic sites, old rice fields and an array of wildlife, including wild turkeys, deer and an occasional bear. Both contain extensive frontage on the Wateree, a river separating Richland and Sumter counties.

Diane Garrett, Romarco’s chief executive, said the company’s plan to offset the impacts “is completely adequate.” She said the 1,100 acres of wetlands to be affected won’t all be lost. About 120 acres will be destroyed, while some of the remaining 980 acres of wetlands to be affected could recover when the mining stops, according to the Corps.

“There might be some changes to wetlands areas, but it’s not destructive to wetlands,” Garrett said. “One of the things we’ll be doing throughout the process is monitoring. Those additional impacts may never occur.”

The law center, which has offices throughout the South and is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., offered its comments on the gold mine in response to a draft environmental impact study of the project that was released in March. A hearing on the study last month drew more than 300 people to a community center in Kershaw, where a majority said they supported the mine because of the hundreds of jobs it would create.

More than 30 people, organizations or government agencies provided written comments on the study. A Corps spokesman said Friday the agency is still assessing the comments and was not prepared to release comment letters to the media. The State newspaper obtained the law center’s letter from the environmental group.

Corps regulators will use the study and the comments to decide whether to grant a federal wetlands permit for the mining work, a decision expected to be made in mid- to late fall. The wetlands permit and a state water quality certification are among the remaining permits the project needs. Anyone wanting to fill wetlands needs a federal permit because the soggy depressions filter stormwater and provide wildlife habitat.

The 2,400-page environmental study examines numerous ecological impacts, ranging from concerns about toxic chemicals to be used at the mine to how it would affect groundwater in the Kershaw area.

In addition to wetlands issues, the law center said the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is ill-prepared to regulate gold mining. The few gold mines that have opened in South Carolina under DHEC’s watch have wound up as either federal Superfund cleanup sites or had other pollution issues, the letter said.

Its comments also questioned the thoroughness of numerous other findings in the Corps’ environmental impact statement, including how mining waste would affect creeks and groundwater; whether enough money is being set aside for an environmental cleanup, if needed; and the overall impact the Romarco mine could have on the environment if other mines are developed in the Kershaw area.

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