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Lancaster Co. gold mine delayed for environmental study

Plans for a huge gold mine near Kershaw have been delayed for at least a year because of the mine's potential effect on creeks and wetlands that run through the site in Lancaster County.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will conduct an environmental impact statement before it decides on a wetlands permit for Romarco Minerals Inc., which wants to create the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River.

Romarco has promised as many as 800 jobs associated with its gold mine in the economically depressed area between Columbia and Charlotte. But the mining operation would dig up or fill 162 acres of wetlands and more than seven miles of streams -- an effect on the landscape not often seen in South Carolina.

"We feel like the project has actual or potential significance in a number of areas,'' the Corps' Richard Darden said Tuesday. "The proposed effects to waters of the U.S., which in this case includes streams and wetlands, will be significant in terms of the acreage'' and miles.

Romarco planned to begin pouring gold bars by 2013, but the company now says the additional study is expected to delay plans by 12 months.

While company officials say they have already conducted thorough environmental studies and their plan minimizes impacts to the landscape, officials said this week they won't fight the Corps' push for a more extensive study.

"Disappointed? Yes,'' Romarco's chief executive, Diane Garrett, told shareholders this week. But she also said the delay will not be significant in the long run.

A Canadian company, Romarco has been working at the Kershaw site for four years as it has aggressively bought land in the Carolinas to mine gold. Romarco wants to reopen the Haile mine, which first opened in the early 1800s and operated periodically until about 20 years ago.

The company plans to extract tiny flecks of gold left from previous mining operations. The open mining pit would be about a mile wide and nearly 900 feet deep in places.

Romarco's mine would cover part of about 2,000 acres near Kershaw, according to the Corps. Some of the operation would be on the old mine site, but other parts would be in undeveloped areas that have not been mined before. The area is about 21 miles north of Camden.

For now, the company will continue to focus on exploration for gold at the Haile site and conduct test work at a laboratory, officials said. As of this past spring, the company already had about 100 people working at the site.

"There are a lot of things that we can do over this next year,'' Garrett said in a conference call Monday. "Nobody is sitting at Haile twiddling their thumbs. The gold is still in the ground. We're still finding more gold.

"There are a lot of opportunities to make the Haile project even better.''

Attempts to reach company officials for further comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.

During the conference call, Garrett said Romarco has about $65 million and has set aside about $2 million for the environmental study. The work will be done by an independent contractor for the Corps.

Dawn Harris-Young, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said her department welcomes the more detailed environmental study. The agency expressed concern about pollution to drinking water, among other things.

The EPA had recommended denying a federal wetlands permit for the project as it was proposed, but could change its mind if the plan is modified, she said. In extreme cases, the EPA can veto permits issued by the Corps, the nation's chief wetlands regulatory agency. The company also needs a state water-quality permit.

Corps officials won't decide on whether to issue a wetlands permit until after the environmental impact statement is done.

Although the company said the additional study will add another 12 months to its schedule, it could be longer than that. Darden said environmental impact statements can take two years or more to conduct.

Corps officials made the decision late Friday as the July 4th holiday weekend approached, and news only began to trickle out early this week. Corps officials said the project needs extensive study.

"This project has the potential to significantly affect the quality of the human environment,'' wrote Jason Kirk, the Corps' district engineer in a July 1 letter to Garrett.

Ann Timberlake of Columbia, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said she's also glad the Corps decided on more extensive study. Among other things, the operation will rely on cyanide, a material poisonous to wildlife.

"We are really not that familiar with the long-term impacts of mining,'' Timberlake said. "We just support being very cautious and thorough at this point.''