Kershaw Mayor Wayne Rhodes smiled with relief this week when he learned that a gold mine proposed for his community had settled differences with an environmental group.
“It was like the war was over,” Rhodes said. “I said, ‘Hey, we got our victory.’”
The settlement between Romarco Minerals and the Sierra Club ended the last permit challenge to the mine. The mine’s boosters were overjoyed in Kershaw, a Lancaster County community with 1,800 residents and few jobs. Folks believe the accord will jump-start the project, avoid layoffs and bring more jobs.
Romarco, a Canadian corporation, wants to dig what would be the largest open-pit gold mine in the eastern United States just up the road from Kershaw. The mine would be 2,500 acres, with pits as deep as 840 feet below ground. Up to 1,100 acres of wetlands could be damaged. The mine’s owners have promised more than 300 permanent jobs, as well as temporary construction jobs that could swell employment to nearly 800.
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But the Sierra Club challenged a mining permit for the project in November, arguing that Romarco needed to provide more money to clean up any pollution or mess it makes during 15 years of gold digging. That delayed the launch of the project by about two months. Sierra Club officials said they were just trying to ensure taxpayers don’t wind up paying for a cleanup one day, instead of the mining company.
Now, the agreement – reached Thursday – likely means Romarco will avoid laying off more than 100 people it already has hired and the company may soon begin hiring more workers, according to officials in Lancaster County.
Keith Tunnell, Lancaster County’s industrial recruiter, said he expects Romarco to begin digging the mine in the next three months. That, he said, is important to the county’s depressed southern end. While unemployment today is under 7 percent countywide, it is well above 10 percent in the Kershaw area, he said. The area has never recovered from textile mill closings in the 1990s.
“I think the community is excited,” Tunnell said. “There was a lot of angst about the news of an impending layoff in the future. That entire Kershaw community has been very supportive of the mine.”
Romarco Minerals sent out notices late last year saying it would possibly begin layoffs Feb. 1 for the more than 100 gold mine workers – if the company’s environmental permit battle was not resolved by early this month, he said.
Romarco’s chief executive, Diane Garrett, was not available last week for comment to explain what her company’s next step is. The company has been working on a financing package to pay for the mining work, in addition to negotiating with the Sierra Club. Romarco has been actively seeking environmental permits for about five years.
Sierra Club lawyer Bob Guild of Columbia contends that his group was not trying to suppress jobs, just make sure the public is protected from possible pollution – and cleanup costs.
According to the agreement, club officials said they would drop their legal challenge in exchange for concessions from Romarco.
The company, headquartered in Toronto, said it would double the amount of cash it would set aside for a cleanup, to $10 million. The company previously agreed only to $5 million with state regulators. The overall cleanup package, which includes other forms of financial assurances, increases to $65 million from $60 million. State regulators originally sought $80 million, but Romarco balked.
Guild said it’s vital to get as much cash as possible because South Carolina has a legacy of abandoned and polluted sites. Two open-pit gold mines that closed 15 years ago are federal taxpayer-financed Superfund cleanup sites. And a hazardous waste dump on the shores of Lake Marion is running out of money to protect the lake from possible pollution leaks.
Guild said having cash for a cleanup is significant because other gold mines may be on the way to South Carolina, where a slate belt is said to be sprinkled with substantial gold deposits.
Romarco has identified some 4 million ounces of gold valued at billions of dollars, but its mine will dig through rock that could produce acid drainage for hundreds of years if the company is not careful.
“We are going to be vigilant about the future of this large-scale mining in South Carolina,” Guild said.