The only environmental group in South Carolina to challenge a large industrial-scale gold mine near Camden is negotiating a settlement with a Canadian corporation over the amount of money that would be left for a cleanup.
Romarco Minerals Inc. and the state Sierra Club will know by the end of this week if they have a deal that will remove remaining legal clouds over the 2,500-acre project. Romarco said the deadline to strike a deal, which was Monday, had been extended until Friday.
Sierra Club lawyer Bob Guild said he’s optimistic a settlement will be reached, but declined to provide details of the negotiations. He said the national Sierra Club would have to sign off on any settlement.
“If there were no substantial likelihood of reaching an agreement, the parties would not have extended the deadline,’’ Guild said.
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The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control agreed to extend the negotiating period, along with Romarco and the Sierra Club.
If no settlement is negotiated by Friday, the Sierra Club still would have time to appeal a mining permit to the state Mining Council. State regulators signed off on a mining permit for the project in early November, prompting a Sierra Club appeal.
Romarco’s Haile Gold mine would be the largest in the eastern United States and include a pit 840 feet deep. It would be comparable to many western gold mines. Reaching an agreement is important to the company to resolve the only permit challenge to its project near the town of Kershaw in Lancaster County.
Romarco said last year it was delaying purchase of equipment and additional hiring because of the Sierra Club challenge. The company promises several hundred jobs, at a minimum, for the economically depressed community 20 miles north of Camden.
The extension to allow further negotiations “was reached due to the holiday season in order to allow Haile and the Sierra Club to determine whether the Sierra Club's claims can be resolved without further appeals,’’ a statement on Romarco’s website said. “SCDHEC has agreed to allow Haile and Sierra Club time to conduct discussions.’’
In appealing DHEC’s mining permit for the project, the Sierra Club argued that state regulators were going too easy on Romarco. After the company complained, DHEC backed away from requiring an $80 million cleanup bond Romarco would have had to post. DHEC lowered the amount to $60 million.
Sierra Club officials said that amount was not adequate because some consultants had suggested bonds actually should be considered in excess of $100 million. The club questioned the length of time Romarco would be liable to prevent pollution leaks from the site after the gold mine closes in about 2030. Acid drainage from mines can last hundreds of years, but the Sierra Club said DHEC’s requirement fell far short of that.
Bonds are required to make sure companies clean up any pollution or other messes after mining ends. At least two abandoned gold mines in South Carolina are federal Superfund cleanup sites, in part because the state didn’t require high enough bonds to clean up the environmental damage.
Three of the state’s major environmental groups agreed not to challenge permits for the mine after Romarco agreed to preserve nearly 5,000 acres in Lancaster and Richland counties as compensation for destroying 120 acres of wetlands. The Sierra Club did not sign off on the deal, later challenging the mining permit after The State newspaper wrote a series of stories on pollution problems at gold mines in Montana and South Carolina.