In a decision hailed by a Canadian mining corporation, South Carolina regulators have rejected a legal appeal that had hampered plans for the largest gold-digging operation in the eastern United States.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board upheld a mining permit approved by agency staff members for Romarco Minerals Inc. to establish the industrial-scale mine on about 2,500 acres in rural Lancaster County, the agency said Monday.
An environmental group that challenged the permit is considering a further appeal that could affect plans, but Romarco chief executive Diane Garrett said she was encouraged by DHEC’s support.
“We are pleased with the decision and continue to believe all questions and concerns raised over the past four years have been fully addressed,’’ Garrett said in a statement posted on Romarco’s website.
The mine will fill or destroy 120 acres of wetlands and miles of creeks, while digging eight mining pits, one of which would be more than 800 feet deep. All told, up to 1,100 acres of wetlands could be affected in some way. The operation is a significant expansion of the closed Haile Gold Mine.
It was unclear Monday whether Romarco would end a hiring freeze it imposed after the Sierra Club filed its appeal in November. DHEC officials indicated the company could begin work on the mine now that the agency board supports the permit. The department said it has thoroughly reviewed the Romarco plans and believes the mine won’t adversely affect the environment.
Romarco, headquartered in Toronto, has promised hundreds of new jobs for the economically stressed Kershaw community about 20 miles north of Camden. Gov. Nikki Haley and many locals back Romarco, saying the company will provide a much-needed economic boost to South Carolina.
The company, led by a team of polished executives, had encountered little opposition to the mine until last month. That’s when Romarco became embroiled in a battle with the state Sierra Club over how much money will be left for a future environmental cleanup.
The Sierra Club, in appealing the mine permit, questioned whether $60 million the state is requiring as a bond is enough to fund a cleanup if Romarco one day walks away from the site, as other mining companies have done in South Carolina. The company maintains it will meet its responsibilities and says $60 million is more than enough to pay for a cleanup.
Sierra Club officials say the more realistic number could top $100 million. They noted in their appeal that DHEC originally sought an $80 million bond, but then backed away after Romarco balked.
Club attorney Bob Guild said Monday that state regulators have failed in the past to protect the environment from abandoned gold mines in Chesterfield and McCormick counties, and from a toxic waste site near Pinewood along Lake Marion.
“The Sierra Club has heard nothing but support for avoiding mistakes of the past from other gold mines and with facilities like Pinewood ... for adequate financial security to protect the environment,’’ Guild said Monday, noting that the club is “certainly reviewing’’ the possibility of an appeal to the state Mining Council.
The two South Carolina gold mines posted tiny bonds and today are federal Superfund cleanup sites that have cost taxpayers $27.4 million to assess and clean up. The waste dump also did not include adequate financial assurance and is running out of money to prevent leaks, DHEC says.
DHEC’s board did not give a reason for upholding the permit agency staff had issued. A department staff document, provided to the board, said the $60 million bond amount is more than enough to cover long-term cleanup costs. The document said the department reduced the bond from $80 million after receiving additional information that showed Romarco was going to do substantially less “earthwork’’ on parts of the property. It also cited revised water treatment costs.
DHEC’s staff document said the bond provides for “perpetual water treatment and site maintenance.’’ And the agency said a $5 million interest-bearing account, a component of the overall bond to be posted, would produce $30 million in cash if left untouched for 60 years.
While mining companies insist they are careful to contain pollution, they also acknowledge that acid drainage is created at many gold and copper-digging sites. Acid occurs naturally when sulfide-rich rock is exposed to air as mines are dug. The acid then can release toxic metals from the rocks and send the contamination into rivers or lakes. Drainage can last for hundreds of years.
Gold and other metals mines also use toxic chemicals, such as cyanide, to extract microscopic flecks of gold from rocks. Toxins released into tailings waste ponds have, in some places, leaked into groundwater. Dams from tailings ponds also have spilled large amounts of polluted water from metals mines.
Having adequate money for a cleanup is an issue at mining sites across the country. Many western mines, as well as the two in South Carolina, have in the past failed to post adequate bonds, or “financial assurance’’ to make sure a cleanup occurs. That has left taxpayers to pick up the bill.