Dust swirled in the late winter breeze as drill rigs cut holes deep into the rock of Lancaster County, searching for gold.
The work, conducted last month, was part of a Canadian company's quest to reopen the historic Haile Gold Mine, hire up to 800 people and create the largest gold mining operation east of the Mississippi River.
But to extract tiny flecks of gold that previous mining operations could not reach, Romarco Minerals wants to fill creeks and dig up wetlands on a scale not often seen in South Carolina. The work would affect 162 acres of wetlands near the last stronghold of an endangered shellfish.
Romarco's plan has set up a potential jobs-versus-environment debate in this quaint, economically depressed town between Columbia and Charlotte.
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Unemployment rates in the Kershaw area exceed 20 percent, about twice the overall jobless rate in South Carolina.
People are depending on Romarco's success to give the town of 1,645 residents a lift, mine boosters say.
"This is Kershaw's BMW," Lancaster County industrial recruiter Keith Tunnell said, likening the Romarco mine to the successful automobile manufacturing plant near Spartanburg.
The company's plan, however, is drawing interest from federal and state natural resource agencies. The work involves digging a pit that, ultimately, will be a mile wide and 840 feet deep. In addition to lost wetlands, about seven miles of creeks will be dug up or filled.
A team of state and federal officials will be at the mine site later this month to investigate.
"This is extensive," said Morgan Wolf, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's not at all typical of the majority of the projects we see."
Company officials say their operations will neither affect the federally protected Carolina heelsplitter shellfish nor pollute the air or water.
"You can protect the wildlife, you can protect historic resources and you can protect the water and the air," Romarco's chief operating officer Jim Arnold said. "We all live in this community. We don't want to be polluting anything."
Romarco expects to employ about 500 construction workers and 300 permanent workers during the mine's life over the next two decades.
The company already has 100 people working at the site, as it explores for gold while awaiting environmental permits to extract the precious metal. Top-salaried employees, such as geologists, are earning up to $90,000 annually.
"These are good-paying jobs," Tunnell said. "It's a good company that pours all kind of money into the community. Not only are they going to buy goods and services locally, but they're going to be very good community supporters - as they've already been."
These days, the Haile Gold Mine site is full of activity. On a recent February afternoon, mining trucks rumbled down dirt roads and drillers ran machinery to find gold samples buried in subterranean rock. In a makeshift laboratory, geologists peered through microscopes, seeking the minute gold particles in rocks that had been unearthed in drill samples.
The type of gold Romarco is finding is so small it's virtually invisible to the eye. A look through a microscope reveals gold amid a small mass of crushed rock. The buttery, yellow color distinguishes gold from the more sparkly pyrite, or fool's gold.
Romarco Minerals, headquartered in Toronto, says it is enthusiastic about South Carolina.
An exploration and gold development corporation, Romarco tells potential investors it operates in "mining friendly, politically safe regions." Much of its exploration work has been done in the western United States and Mexico.
Today, the company's main development project is the Haile Gold Mine near Kershaw, 21 miles north of Camden. Romarco has been buying land at the Haile mine for about three years. Its initial drill tests found evidence that plenty of gold was left despite previous mining, company officials say.
The company estimates about 2 million ounces of gold could be extracted from the site. And with gold selling for $1,400 an ounce, that makes for a cash bonanza - $2.8 billion at current prices.
Romarco hopes to complete site preparation and begin mining in the next two years, with gold bars being poured by 2013. Company officials say they expect the mine to be the largest east of the Mississippi River in terms of gold produced.
The Haile Gold Mine that Romarco is exploring was one of the first working gold mines in the country, according to the Lancaster County Public Library. The discovery of gold in the early 19th century was believed to have touched off the nation's first gold rush, well before the 1849 rush to California. The mine operated off and on for decades but has been closed more than 20 years.
As economic development officials tout the Romarco gold mine project, natural resource agencies, environmentalists and some local residents are raising flags.
One question is whether the project would affect the Carolina heelsplitter, one of the rarest freshwater shellfish in the country.
The Haile Gold Mine is about two miles from Flat Creek, one of the last remaining habitats for the heelsplitter, although in a different watershed. About 50 heelsplitters live in Flat Creek, the largest population of the shellfish anywhere in the Carolinas, recent research shows.
If the mine is found to threaten the federally protected endangered species or its habitat, wildlife objections could slow permits for the project or stop it all together. Heelsplitters, which are clam-like shellfish, are found in only 10 places in the Carolinas.
"We have perennial streams that are going to be blown out or pretty much covered over," said Wolf, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Charleston office. "It is on over 4,000 acres of land, and much of that will be cleared and graded with huge pits dug.
John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said federal officials might require a formal environmental impact statement to fully assess the mine's effect on the land and water. It's possible that could delay the mine's projected production start in 2013, he said.
A major worry is the use of toxic chemicals to extract gold. The Romarco mining operation will use cyanide, a caustic compound that if leaked into groundwater could seep into Flat Creek and affect heelsplitters, federal natural resources agency officials fear.
"Any contaminants that get into groundwater and then are pulled up into headwater streams that flow into Flat Creek are going to be a huge issue," Wolf said. "This mussel is so sensitive to a lot of pollutants."
Cyanide, which is vital to wash gold from rocks, also can kill birds and other wildlife.
Romarco officials say they will control cyanide with a different process than past gold mining operations in South Carolina.
Lancaster County's Tunnell also downplayed environmental concerns, saying the mining will occur on property that was dug up before.
"It's been mined at least five times since the 1830s," he said.
How Romarco will mine for gold
Machinery will dig rock from open pits.
Trucks will haul gold-containing rock to a mill.
The mill will crush and grind the rock to a fine silt.
Silt will go into tanks, where it will be exposed to cyanide.
Cyanide will separate crushed rock from crushed gold.
The separated gold will be refined to form a gold sludge.
Gold will be dried and smelted into gold bars.
SOURCES: Romarco Minerals, Department of Health and Environmental Control