Seldom a week goes by without someone calling The Herald newsroom, looking for a job at the Haile gold mine near Kershaw.
It is understandable. Unemployment rates in Lancaster and Chester counties are at record levels, and it's not that much lower in York County. With reports the mine could hire as many as 500 people during construction and 300 when it is operational, the Haile mine is one of the area's largest possible employers. Possible because the mine has yet to secure necessary federal and state permits.
Maybe those seeking jobs have the same spirit that led Col. Benjamin Haile and Burnell Brewer to the area in the 1820s. Haile and Brewer were among the first successful miners during America's initial gold rush, right here in South Carolina. Haile opened his mine in 1827, Brewer in 1828. Gold has been extracted from the mines bearing their names for many years.
Maybe those seeking jobs are lured by the rising price of an ounce of gold. Gold hit a record high Wednesday on New York Mercantile Exchange at $1,437.70 per ounce.
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Whatever the reason, they will have to stand in line. The lure of gold is strong.
Why else would a company plan to invest $1 billion before it makes its first dollar of profit?
Why else would other companies be rushing to South Carolina, simply on the possibility of finding more gold?
Why would any think they can make money extracting gold from the ground so fine you need a microscope to see it?
Romarco Minerals of Toronto believes it can make gold mining profitable at the Haile mine - even if its upfront investment is $1 billion.
Their recently released feasibility study projects the Haile mine will have one of the industry's lowest capital and operating costs and yield high-grade gold. The company estimates there 2 million ounces of gold for mining - and that's a conservative estimate. Analysts project that estimate will double. The company said 83.7 percent of the microscopic gold can be recovered.
The company's financial estimates were based on gold selling - at $950 an ounce.
"We knew it would be good," said Diane Garrett, Romarco's president and chief executive officer. "We didn't know the cost would be that low."
The rising price of gold just adds to Romarco's enthusiasm.
Romarco's story is remarkable, too.
The publicly traded company was initially offered on a Canadian exchange that lists stocks with values less than 20 cents per share. Romarco sank to a low of 9 cents per share. Current share price is $2.39. It has been as high as $2.88 and as low as $1.53 over the past 52 weeks.
It started with six people three years ago at the Haile Mine. It now employs 102 people, some of them descendants of those who previously worked the mine, said David Thomas, Romarco's vice president and general manager. It has offices in Fort Mill and is building a $5 million lab in Kershaw.
Technology is a major factor in Romarco's projections.
The easy part will be blasting the rock from the ground, Thomas said. Huge, 100-ton trucks will transport the rock to a crusher, which will pound the rock into a consistency somewhere between sand and talcum powder, Thomas said. A process that uses cyanide helps separate the gold from the rock. Unlike previous operations that use outdoor pools with cyanide and water, Romarco plans to build a 7,000 square-foot processing building, Thomas said.
Romarco hopes to pour its first bar of gold in 2013.
That is assuming Romarco gets the necessary federal and state environmental and mining permits.
"The biggest holdback for the stock price is getting the permits," said Don Blythe, an analyst with Paradigm Capital who specializes in gold companies. "It is one of the outstanding risk boxes."
Company officials say they are environmentally conscious. There are some environmentally sensitive areas within the areas Romarco plans to use.
Romarco's optimism has affected other companies.
Another Canadian company, Strongbow Explorations of Vancouver, British Columbia, holds options on 2,800 acres near the Haile mine.
Ken Armstrong, Strongbow's president and chief operating officer, said his company has spent between $1 million and $1.5 million securing mineral options. They have flown over the land, conducting magnetic and electromagnetic surveys. They are about to drill their first test hole.
The land they have options on is slightly different from Romarco's; it is more sandy. Nonetheless, Armstrong is encouraged. Several factors make exploration of the Carolina Slate belt, which stretches from Georgia to Virginia, attractive, he said.
Previous shallow mines show there is gold here, he said. Unlike other places where gold is mined, there is a stable political climate and one largely friendly to mining, he said. Roads, power and other amenities are in place.
And, he said, the weather in South Carolina, makes it "a pleasant place to work."
It is a lot warmer than prospecting for gold in northern Canada, he said.
North to Alaska? Apparently just a little bit south of North Carolina is where the miners want to be.