The prospect of gold in the hills of Lancaster County continues to create disagreements in this tiny community of closed textile buildings and two-laned streets.
But those supporting plans for a big gold mine — and the nearly 800 jobs it promises — stole the show Thursday at a hearing to discuss how the mining operation will affect the environment. Most of the nearly three dozen speakers provided enthusiastic support for the proposed Romarco Minerals Inc. mine between Columbia and Charlotte.
Speaker after speaker offered testimonials of how Romarco has helped schools and charities since arriving in Kershaw several years ago. Already, the Canadian company has provided more work for a community with unemployment estimated at 15 to 20 percent and even helped folks move into newer homes, mine boosters said. Times have been hard since the textile mills closed about 25 years ago, state and federal regulators were told.
“We have had nothing going on here” for decades, Kershaw Mayor Wayne Rhodes said, noting that “we need jobs” in the community. “This is a huge opportunity for us. People in the town are very much for it.”
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Mine backers turned out well before the meeting, displaying three vans plastered with business signs and balloons favoring the Romarco Minerals operation, purported to be the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi River.
Kershaw real estate agent Tammy Reynolds, who helped rally support, said it’s hard to find fault with the company or its proposed mine.
“They have just made such a big impact and have done more for this community than y’all can ever imagine,” Reynolds said. “I’m so blessed and honored to be a part of a town that has this company in it. Going into the future ... we can trust our environmental agencies to take care of us.”
Thursday’s meeting, which drew more than 300 people, was in marked contrast to a federal hearing last year that generated substantial opposition to the mine. Many at that meeting questioned whether the community would suffer lingering environmental impacts from the gold-digging operation.
Romarco officials were relieved at Thursday night’s response.
“This was outstanding,” Romarco senior vice-president Jim Arnold said after the two-hour hearing concluded.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which jointly conducted the hearing, will use comments from the meeting to help decide whether to issue permits for Romarco Minerals. The company needs state and federal permission to destroy large acreages of wetlands, bury miles of creeks and draw down groundwater for the mine, which will sit on more than 4,500 acres.
Up to 1,100 acres of wetlands could be affected by the mine over the next two decades, according to a draft environmental impact statement. About 20 miles of streams face threats. Federal officials say many wetlands and streams will recover, but the 120 acres of wetlands expected to be permanently lost are greater than most projects.
It could be late fall before agencies decide on environmental permits. A final environmental impact statement is expected to be finished in July.
Despite the support, a handful of speakers said Kershaw could suffer from polluted waste ponds, lost streams and depleted groundwater associated with the mine.
Kip Carter said the mine could lead to other large gold mines in the Carolinas and Georgia that would devastate parts of each state with pollution and scarred landscapes. He suggested the Kershaw community has been distracted by the promise of jobs and charitable donations.
“They come in here and they spread money around and make people feel better,” he said of Romarco Minerals. “But the bottom line is 20 years from now, these jobs are going to be gone and we’re going to have a hole in the ground and a poisonous lake.”
Romarco Minerals, of Toronto, wants to reopen and expand the historic Haile Gold mine, a plan projected to create about 400 construction jobs and 350 mining jobs in a community once dependent on textile mills for work.