The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opposes plans for a huge gold mine in Lancaster County, saying in a recent letter that the project could threaten drinking water, wildlife and creeks that drain off the site.
Romarco Minerals wants to create what would be the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River by digging a hole that, in places, would be nearly 900 feet deep and a mile wide.
But the mine, which would employ 800 people, would excavate or fill an unusually large number of wetlands and streams - and the EPA said it can't support Romarco's plan.
The agency left open the possibility that it could reconsider if more studies are done to address environmental concerns.
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In a March 25 letter, the EPA urged federal regulators to deny a wetlands permit needed by Romarco Minerals to move the project forward. The mine, as proposed, would destroy up to 162 acres of wetlands and seven miles of creeks near the town of Kershaw in Lancaster County.
"The proposed project has the potential to have a significant level of direct impacts to a wide variety of natural and human resources," according to the letter from James Giattina, the EPA's regional water protection division chief.
Among the EPA's concerns are the potential for mining pollutants to contaminate drinking water and creeks, such as the Little Lynches River.
It says a plan to offset some of the lost wetlands isn't adequate.
Those comments reflect a chorus of questions by state and federal natural resource agencies, which say more extensive study is needed.
Romarco, headquartered in Toronto, wants to reopen the historic Haile Gold Mine and expand it to extract tiny bits of gold that previous mining operations could not reach.
The Haile Gold Mine, widely known in Lancaster and Kershaw counties, was started in the early 1800s and operated periodically until about 1990.
The new operation would employ about 300 permanent workers and 500 construction workers. Local industrial recruiters say the project would be a boon to the economically depressed area, which has suffered since textile mills closed more than 20 years ago. Romarco owns about 8,000 acres in the area of the Haile site.
It's possible that the EPA and other agencies could change their minds if Romarco does more extensive studies of the project's environmental impacts and reduces the effects of the operation on the landscape.
The EPA's March 25 letter asks for a formal environmental impact statement, an extensive study that could delay the project but ultimately satisfy EPA concerns.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also asked for an environmental impact statement in a letter written Tuesday to federal regulators.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that must decide the wetlands permit, should know in the next three months whether it will require an environmental impact statement, spokeswoman Sara Corbett said Thursday.
But Romarco executive Jim Arnold, who said his company is working to minimize environmental impacts, said the Canadian firm would "vigorously" oppose conducting an environmental impact statement. That would provide little new information and only delay permits for the project by up to a year, he said.
The company wants to start producing gold bars from the mine by 2013.
Corbett said the agency doesn't have a timetable for deciding the wetlands permit.
Arnold, Romarco's senior vice president and chief operating officer, said he believes many of the agencies' concerns can be resolved with more discussion.
Romarco maintains that it will not send polluted runoff into creeks because it will use a different process than past mining operations. He also has said a tailings waste pond will not include cyanide levels that would be toxic to wildlife.
"This is going to be the showcase mine in South Carolina and the world," Arnold said. "We are making good progress. I'd like for environmentalists to say 'If you want to see mining done right, come to Haile.'"
Still, natural resource agencies have plenty of questions.
In a letter written Wednesday, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources urged that wetlands and water quality permits not be issued until more study is done at the Haile site. The DNR letter went to both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Control, which must decide on wetlands and water quality permits.
DNR officials say the project could kill wildlife and fish, including the Sandhills Chub, a sensitive species that lives in creeks at the Haile site.
The department expressed concerns about an open tailings pond that will store waste from the site, including cyanide. The pond will not be on the old gold mine site, but in a new area Romarco has acquired. Arnold said Romarco had no other place to put it.
"DNR is concerned that significant wildlife mortality may result" from the 600-acre tailings pond, agency permit program director Bob Perry wrote.
Agency officials said they also want to know whether the mining operation will wash toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and antimony off the site and contaminate nearby creeks.
Mercury is of particular concern because some creeks downstream from the site already have fish tainted by mercury from other sources, the DNR letter said.