Bolton: Lancaster County residents should ask gold mine, ‘Why not in our back yard?’

Associate EditorAugust 9, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHAT IF I told you I wanted to dig up your back yard and make a mighty fine mess for years to come, but I’d be willing to make it up by ensuring that the wonderful backyard garden at a home two counties away is preserved forever?

Would you go berserk, first at my having the nerve to make such a request and, second, at the fact that I thought I could make it up to you by doing a good deed that doesn’t benefit you in the least?

That’s essentially what a gold mine is telling the people of Lancaster County in “Return to Cook’s Mountain,” the second episode of what’s become an environmental drama in which a beautiful natural landmark in Lower Richland is used as a pawn by big industrial interests out to expand their not-so-environmentally friendly businesses and deepen their pockets.

In the first episode, landfill operator Republic Services was desperately seeking a way out of its agreements with Richland County and the owners of Cook’s Mountain requiring it to close the landfill in 2019. The company first heavily lobbied Richland County Council for an indefinite extension on the life of the landfill, promising increased revenue from landfill fees. Republic then purchased Cook’s Mountain. In doing so, the landfill operator made it clear it didn’t want the natural landmark; it only wanted to own it long enough to tear up an agreement it had with Cook’s Mountain Timber LLC that called for the landfill to close. Its plan was then to sell it.

Well, it looks like that’s about to happen, which leads to this latest episode.

Canada-based Romarco Minerals, which is seeking to open a gigantic gold mine in Lancaster County, is offering to preserve Cook’s Mountain and an adjacent riverfront plantation in Lower Richland — if federal and state regulators give it the OK to dig up or cover an unusually large amount of wetlands in Lancaster.

No doubt, that deal would be greeted with excitement in Richland County, where folks have been concerned about the future of Cook’s Mountain, a rare land formation on the Wateree River. Since the landfill operator bought Cook’s Mountain in 2012, the public hasn’t had access to it.

Frankly, if Richland County had done the smart thing and rebuffed Republic’s effort to extend the life of the landfill indefinitely (what responsible elected body does such a thing?), it could have — and should have — purchased Cook’s Mountain. Then we wouldn’t have to be watching as the landmark is used as an environmental pawn.

The gold-mining company promises to make Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation a publicly accessible state nature preserve; it would deed the properties to the Department of Natural Resources. The offer to protect the nearly 3,700 acres in Richland County is Romarco’s attempt to ease concerns at the state agency and among conservationists over the large amount of wetlands it would destroy in Lancaster.

Even if Romarco Minerals’ proposal addresses concerns from the Department of Natural Resources and other regulatory bodies, I don’t see how this would sit well with conservationists and folks in Lancaster County, who would be affected by the gold mine’s presence every day. The proposed mine could become the largest east of the Mississippi River. The company would bury some five miles of creeks and fill or dig up 120 acres of wetlands near the town of Kershaw — 55 miles north of Columbia.

Romarco’s mitigation proposal would set up a $4.5 million endowment to manage Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation and provide another $4.9 million for projects that would benefit the endangered heelsplitter mussel closer to the gold mine in Lancaster County. While I’m sure the heelsplitter projects are needed and welcomed, the fact that the mining company is also offering such a big deal in Richland County tells me that its wetlands destruction request is so massive and unusual that it feels it has to go to great lengths to get the blessing of regulators.

But if it’s going to dig up Lancaster County’s back yard, so to speak, why is it promising to preserve a garden in Lower Richland — involving a different watershed — rather than in Lancaster? Typically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prefers that plans to offset lost wetlands seek to protect or restore wetlands in the same watershed. The gold-mining company supposedly has struggled to find adequate property in the Kershaw area to offset the mine’s impacts.

As much as I’d like to see Cook’s Mountain preserved, I can’t help but wonder whether this would be fair to Lancaster County. Lancaster is taking the brunt of this, and I think it deserves more — if the mine, in fact, is a project that should be approved at all.

Of course, Lancaster County’s local economy is struggling and needs a jolt. The mine predicts it will provide up to 800 permanent and temporary jobs, good enough to earn the support of county business leaders.

It’s understandable that the community wants the jobs. But the project still needs to make good environmental sense. Even if it embraces the gold mine wholeheartedly, Lancaster County still should demand that more mitigation be done in its area.

While mine officials might not be able to find enough property to offset the operation’s impact, Lancaster County officials need to insist the mine find other worthwhile and needed environmental projects to sponsor, just as it came up with the heelsplitter project. This gold mine could be there for many years and, believe me, will extract tons of money from the earth. Romarco Minerals can afford to do more — in addition to the heelsplitter projects and Cook’s Mountain, quite frankly.

On Aug. 20, a public meeting will be held in Kershaw to discuss Romarco’s request for a federal wetlands permit.

Lancaster County folks would be wise to be on hand. This would be a rare opportunity for a community to ask, “Why not in our backyard?”

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-863 1 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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