In digging gold from the soil of Lancaster County, a huge mining operation would damage an area of wetlands the size of some state parks and larger than the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia.
The Romarco Minerals mine – touted as the biggest in the eastern United States – would affect about 1,100 acres of swamps, bogs and other wetlands in the Kershaw community as workers excavate tiny flecks of gold during a 15-year period, records show.
While it has been widely known that a large swath of wetlands face destruction from the Romarco mine, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study released this week says substantially more of the watery depressions could suffer indirectly from groundwater pumping needed to keep mining pits dry.
The 1,100 acres at risk dwarf the amount of wetlands typically damaged or destroyed by most development projects in South Carolina, current and former federal officials said Friday.
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“That is a large impact,’’ said Steve Gilbert, a retired wetlands biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who spent most of his career in South Carolina and Florida. “That is one of the biggest (impacts) I’ve seen, and I’ve worked on a lot of big projects.’’
Richard Darden, a Corps of Engineers wetlands specialist, said not all of the wetlands hurt by the mine will be lost for good. Many are expected to recover after miners stop pumping groundwater to keep pits dry and groundwater levels rise again, according to the study Darden helped put together.
But he acknowledged the project will affect other wetlands permanently. And for wetlands temporarily dried up by groundwater pumping, Darden said wildlife could have less habitat to forage for food or seek shelter.
“It is a pretty good chunk of wetlands,’’ Darden said.
Put in perspective, the 1,100 acres of wetlands that would be affected by the gold mine take up about the same amount of land as Poinsett State Park near Sumter or more than twice as much land as the USC campus.
The mine’s potential effect on wetlands is contained in a 2,400-page draft environmental impact statement released by the Corps of Engineers this week. The study looked at another alternative to the project planned by Romarco Minerals of Canada, but the two plans are similar and have roughly the same impacts on wetlands.
The environmental impact statement, under development for the past two years, will be finalized after a public comment period and an April 24 hearing in Kershaw.
The Corps will use the 2,400-page report to determine whether to issue Romarco a wetlands disturbance permit, which is vital to starting the mine. That decision would not be made until later this year.
Under federal law, permits are needed to fill wetlands because swamps and bogs provide habitat for wildlife, soak up floodwaters and help water quality in creeks.
Romarco’s gold mine would be established at the site of a long-closed mine near Kershaw, a small community about halfway between Columbia and Charlotte. The new mine would be on about 4,552 acres, more than half of which are expected to be used for gold extraction. Some mining pits would be about 800 feet deep.
The project, expected to create hundreds of jobs, has generated substantial talk since Romarco moved into South Carolina more than three years ago and began exploring for gold. Many people favor the gold mine as a way to help the economy, but others worry about the environmental toll the digging operation will have.
In addition to wetlands impacts, the project will create a toxin-tinged tailings pond and destroy some five miles of creeks.
Diane Garrett, Romarco’s chief officer, said Friday that her company wants to have the least environmental impact it can on the landscape. The company has worked closely with regulators to offset the mine’s impact, officials have said. She said it’s too early to comment on the Corps environmental impact study.
“We’re just now starting to digest it in detail,’’ Garrett said. “We have read the executive summary. We thought it was very straightforward. We’re thrilled that it is out. This is a big milestone, and we are really pleased to be at this point.’’
Of the 1,100 acres of wetlands that would be affected, Romarco would directly fill 120 acres – an amount already among the largest under consideration in South Carolina today. Other major projects with big wetland impacts include the proposed Interstate 73 in eastern South Carolina, where 272 acres of wetlands would be filled. Boeing’s aircraft plant also plans to expand near North Charleston, which could result in filling some 150 acres of wetlands.
As many as 982 additional acres of wetlands could be damaged indirectly – either permanently or temporarily – when miners lower groundwater levels to excavate gold, the study said. Many wetlands in the area depend on groundwater.
Streams receiving seepage from groundwater also could suffer, the report said. But the report says no one within a two-mile radius of the project relies on wells for drinking water. If wells, ponds or springs are affected, Romarco would provide alternative water supplies, the report said.
To offset impacts to wetlands, Romarco plans to protect nearly 4,400 acres, most of it in Richland County on the Wateree River southeast of Columbia.
The mitigation package includes public access and use of Cook’s Mountain, a rare landform. The Richland plan has sparked questions because the property is in another watershed more than an hour’s drive from Kershaw. The S.C. Heritage Trust program, which would manage the protected land, would receive about $9.4 million as part of the compensation package for destroying wetlands in Lancaster County. Some of the money could be used to help protect the endangered Carolina Heelsplitter, a rare mussel.
The environmental impact statement called the funding package “an outstanding financial trust’’ to help manage the property being set aside and to restore and enhance wetlands on Cook’s Mountain and two other tracts.
Although the environmental damage could be substantial, the study said the gold mine project would provide a substantial boost to the economy.
It would employ up to 420 people directly during the peak of mining operations, which would be in year seven of the project’s 15-year lifespan. The project would average about 270 employees a year and would create some $17 million in annual wages during the 15 years, the study said. Additional indirect jobs also are expected, according to the report.
That economic activity is expected to generate some $35 million in state income taxes during the 15-year project period, the study said.
Overall, Romarco is expected to spend about $1.1 billion on the project. If gold prices remain stable, Romarco could earn more than $2 billion digging up the precious mineral at the old Haile Gold Mine site, according to past reports on the mine’s potential financial impact.