Land swap could seal SC gold mine deal

Cook’s Mountain, Richland riverfront swap enticing to conservationists

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 19, 2013 

Conservation groups have been quiet lately about a plan to dig up chunks of Lancaster County so that a Canadian mining company can extract gold from the rural area between Columbia and Charlotte.

While the gold mine will destroy miles of gurgling creeks in the Kershaw community, its owners are dangling some of the most coveted riverfront land in Richland County to offset the mine’s environmental impact in Lancaster County.

And that isn’t an easy offer to ignore.

Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation, which encompass nearly 3,700 acres along the Wateree River, would become part of a publicly accessible state nature preserve in Richland County – if Romarco Minerals gains permission to dig up or fill 120 acres of wetlands and smother five miles of creeks in Lancaster County.

Representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Kershaw to answer questions about Romarco’s proposal to offset the environmental impact by deeding Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation to the state.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and Conservation Voters of South Carolina are among those groups waiting for more information before passing judgment on the bold plan by Romarco Minerals Inc., their representatives said Monday.

“These new properties that have been added to the plan are properties with important conservation values,’’ said Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the law center. “The larger point is there is still a lot that we need to understand and that needs to be disclosed about this proposal.’’

Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters, said she’s received several phone calls from people concerned about the mining project in Lancaster County, which is some 60 miles north of Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation.

But Timberlake said she’s urged people to look at the undeveloped Cook’s and Goodwill properties and how the land near Columbia might offset the losses in Lancaster County.

“We are a small state and I do think this is a very worthwhile project they put together, the mitigation of Cook’s and Goodwill together,’’ Timberlake said, “It’s the combination of the two that is significant, as well as so much river frontage. It’s in the heart of the state and ties in well with other properties.’’

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources, one of the project’s biggest detractors initially, recently said the plan to save Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill plantation was “an enormous step forward.’’ The properties are next to each other and include 7.5 miles of frontage along the Wateree River in lower Richland County, upstream from Congaree National Park. Romarco would help establish a $4.5 million endowment to manage the properties and a smaller piece near Kershaw.

Cook’s Mountain is particularly notable because, although less than 400 feet above sea-level, it is one of the highest points in the otherwise flat mid-section of South Carolina. The property already is mostly in a protected status, but the advantage of making it part of a state preserve is the public would have access.

The Romarco plan to dig for gold involves developing a series of open pits, some as deep as 840 feet at the site north of Kershaw. They would be excavated on a 4,500-acre tract that also would include a tailings pond with mining wastewater. The work would occur at the site of the old Haile Gold Mine, which was in operation for parts of 200 years until it closed in the early 1990s.

Romarco, headquartered in Toronto, wants to reopen and expand the mine to dig out tiny flecks of gold that past mining companies could not reach. The company’s South Carolina project was launched more than two years ago as the price of gold soared. Today, falling gold prices have slowed the project somewhat, but Romarco says it is committed to digging the mine. The idea of reopening and expanding the gold mine has enjoyed support from many locals in Kershaw, where unemployment rates are high.

The Romarco mine would become the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River when fully operational, company officials have said.

Romarco’s plan to offset wetlands losses isn’t something that comes along every day in South Carolina because it is frowned upon by state and federal agencies.

Federal law requires companies, such as Romarco, to obtain permits to fill wetlands. Anyone wanting a permit to destroy wetlands must compensate for the loss by creating or restoring wetlands elsewhere. The idea is make sure there is “no net loss’’ of wetlands, which provide wildlife habitat and are important to maintain water quality in creeks, rivers and streams. In many cases, those wanting to impact wetlands also can agree to preserve soggy land in exchange for the wetlands loss, rather than create or recreate wetlands.

State and federal policies, however, generally encourage developers, miners and others to restore, create or preserve wetlands in the same watershed. In this case, the bulk of Romarco’s wetlands offset plan is in another watershed. The Lancaster mine where the wetlands will be destroyed is in the Lynches River basin, but most of the land to be saved is in the Wateree River basin.

Tom Welborn, a former wetlands section chief for the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, said agencies generally prefer to offset wetlands losses in the watershed because it protects the area most affected by a development project, mine or other activity.

“The premise of the federal Clean Water Act is to protect water quality,’’ Welborn said. “If you move out of the watershed (to compensate for wetlands losses), the likelihood of improving water quality in the watershed where the impacts take place is going to be very limited -- if it’s even possible.’’

While most of Romarco’s wetlands offset plan, known as a “mitigation plan,” would focus on land protection in Richland County, about 698 acres to be saved would be in the Kershaw area. That land, called “Rainbow Ranch,” is near the home of one of the rarest mussels in the U.S., the Carolina heel splitter. Romarco says its plan will help protect some five miles of habitat that is critical to the heel splitter’s survival.

The Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill land comprises about 85 percent of the 4,388 acres to be protected. The largest swath of wetlands to be protected – more than 1,000 acres – would be on the Goodwill tract, according to plans.

“The Haile Gold Mine mitigation plan represents a unique opportunity to accomplish large scale conservation of outstanding resources including Rainbow Ranch, Goodwill Plantation and Cooks Mountain,” said Jim Arnold, a senior vice president with Romarco Minerals. “At 700 acres of preserved land, Rainbow Ranch will expand the critical habitat area for the endangered Carolina Heelsplitter.”

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service