Open-pit gold mines have left a toxic and costly legacy for taxpayers in South Carolina, where contamination is seeping into creeks and groundwater two decades after the mines closed.
So far, the public has spent $27.4 million trying to clean up the mess left by gold mines in McCormick and Chesterfield counties, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta.
But those costs are expected to rise by untold millions before the sites are cleansed and returned to normal – if that’s possible.
The task remains large enough that the EPA is hesitant to guess when it will remove the Barite Hill and Brewer gold mines from its list of Superfund sites, which means they would no longer present environmental threats.
“We are still a considerable ways off,” the EPA’s Barite Hill cleanup coordinator Candice Teichert said of the site near McCormick in western South Carolina.
Questions about gold mining have resurfaced in South Carolina since a Canadian company announced four years ago that it planned to launch the largest open-pit gold-digging operation ever in the state. The Lancaster County mine, about 60 miles north of Columbia, would have eight pits and disturb 2,612 acres. Miners are awaiting decisions next month on government permits they need to start digging.
Romarco Minerals of Canada says the company will use modern mining techniques to control pollution – and company officials insist they will not walk away from their duties to restore the land after they complete mining in the late 2020s.
While what happens with the Romarco site won’t be known for years, regulators say they have plenty to do at the Barite Hill and Brewer mines.
Both Barite Hill and Brewer were declared Superfund sites after their owners collectively dug up 7 tons of gold, then abandoned the properties in 1999. South Carolina regulators who permitted the mines did not require substantial cleanup bonds and later asked the EPA for help.
Both sites are contaminated by metals and acid draining from sulfide-rich rock, which was exposed during the gold-excavation process.
A third gold mine in Ridgeway, just north of Columbia, is being cleaned up by its owners. State records show much of the mine site has been restored, although some acid seepage has occurred from a closed tailings waste disposal area.
Among the tasks at the Barite Hill and Brewer mines are examining how to reduce metals contamination while also treating water that already is polluted – an effort that’s expected to go on indefinitely.
The amount of federal money spent so far for the Brewer gold mine is $12.9 million, much of it to pump and treat polluted water. The owner, British Costain Ltd., abandoned the property 15 years ago after closing the mine in 1995.
At the Barite Hill mine, public cleanup costs have reached $14.5 million, according to the EPA. Mine owner Nevada Goldfields quit mining in 1994, filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and abandoned the property.
Contamination from gold, copper and other hardrock mines is a national concern. Mines in Montana and other parts of the West also have polluted the environment and left the public with big cleanup bills.
Susan Corbett, a leader in the S.C. Sierra Club, said both the Barite Hill and Brewer gold mines represent South Carolina’s general willingness to accept potentially risky businesses at the expense of the environment and taxpayers.
“I’m very, very nervous and worried about any expanded mining operation in our state,” she said. “We don’t have a good history of making these people toe the line.
“We see dollar signs in the short term, but we don’t think about the long-term impact of what it’s going to cost us.”
A close look at Barite Hill reveals a landscape of gaping holes, discolored creeks, man-made slopes and eroding clay, hidden among deep forests south of McCormick.
On one side of the property, a stream flows reddish-orange – most likely, federal officials say, from metals that have leaked away from the mine that operated from 1989-94.
As she stood on the creek bank last month, the EPA’s Teichert noted the lack of fish and other organisms in the water. She said that’s no surprise, given the acid contamination.
“This water is going to have to be treated,” Teichert said. “This is a challenge.”
Past studies for the EPA have documented elevated amounts of cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury and zinc in the water of the tributary as well as two other streams that run into Hawe Creek, which then flows to Lake Thurmond. Federal officials today are doing more research to learn about the pollution’s impact on creeks and animals that live in the area, along with contaminant levels in sediment.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is figure out what is the treatment going to be,” Teichert said.
The mining pit, the suspected source of creek pollution nearby, has filled up with contaminated groundwater since the gold mine closed. The 60-foot-deep basin looks pleasant enough. Its blue-green water shimmered recently in the sunlight as Teichert inspected the area. But actually the water contains metals, released by acid-draining rock.
Efforts to raise the pH – which lowers acid levels and cuts down on metals pollution – proved successful when consultants dumped lime in the pit water about six years ago. But now, higher acid levels are returning and the EPA is trying to learn why, Teichert said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Barite Hill property, polluted water trickles from an old rock dump and into a pond below.
Plastic sheeting that regulators say was intended to hold back the contamination lies exposed and tattered on the side of the erosion-scarred rock dump. Massive rock piles, which once contained gold, were to have been covered with a plastic liner and grass planted on top to prevent water from seeping in. Teichert said the torn sheeting is part of a liner that failed.
A recent look at the site showed water seeping from the rock dump, through a patch of pea-green algae and into the pond. The lower side of the hill was little more than eroded mud. Now, with the liners torn and polluted water draining into the pond, one of the major concerns is that the small lake will overflow and spill heavy metals into a nearby stream.
In 2007, the EPA conducted a cleanup on some of the most contaminated parts of the Barite Hill property. Its work included demolishing an old furnace building and neutralizing some 2,000 pounds of acids and other material. The agency also has shored up a dam near the mining pit.
The Barite Hill site pulled more than 1 ton of gold from the soil of McCormick County, but area historian Bobby Edmonds said the gold mine offered few local jobs and little information.
“I don’t think many people realized what was going on,’’ he said. “The fellows who did work on it, they were close-mouthed.’’
Two hours away from McCormick, in eastern South Carolina, the EPA also is working at the Brewer Gold Mine near the town of Jefferson, not far from the North Carolina border.
The Brewer mine, on the site of a historic but much smaller mining operation, was an open-pit gold mine from 1987-95. It has had an array of contamination problems and has polluted area waterways. The most serious problem resulted from a 1990 cyanide spill that killed fish along a 49-mile stretch of the Lynches River. The spill occurred when a pond dam failed.
Elevated levels of copper, cyanide and lead have been found through the years in nearby Little Fork Creek, a shallow tributary of the Lynches River that harbors several fish species, including the American Eel and the striped bass.
Selenium, cyanide and lead are among potentially dangerous pollutants found in groundwater. Each of those pollutants can sicken people who consume elevated levels over time.
Some of the Brewer site has been stabilized and cleaned up, but the property has remained on the federal Superfund list since 2005.
Loften Carr, the EPA’s cleanup coordinator at Brewer, said that while the Chesterfield cleanup is farther along than the one in McCormick County, Brewer is “not going to be off the (Superfund list) anytime soon.”
Cleanup efforts at Chesterfield County’s closed mine have been complicated by an old water treatment system that did not work.
The Brewer gold company had engineered its main mining pit to treat contaminated water that would fill the pit after excavation stopped. The idea was to route the rising water through a drain filled with limestone, neutralizing the acidic water.
But the pit proved so full of holes that the polluted water had trouble reaching the drain. Instead, contaminated water began seeping out the side of the pit about 100 yards from a creek. As a result, the EPA must pump the contaminated water to a treatment plant to protect the creek, Carr said. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which had required a small reclamation bond, sought the EPA’s help.
“Everything went wrong, basically, and then the company abandoned the site in 1999,” Carr said. “That’s when DHEC asked EPA ... to come out to the site and start running the treatment plant. We’ve been out there ever since.”
Chuck Williams, a DHEC regulator, said the water likely will have to be pumped and treated forever, unless someone invents a new way to deal with the problem.
“Right now, this is in perpetuity,” Williams said. He also said “what we’re trying to stop is the heavy metals from getting to the creek” where fish and other aquatic animals live.
The EPA is spending about $1 million a year on water treatment and maintenance at the site. The agency is pumping tainted water to a treatment pond, so that contaminants don’t spread. Someone must run the treatment plant daily, Carr said.
Costs are expected to go up because the government plans a new 56-million-gallon treatment plant to replace the aging system at Brewer. The project is expected to cost $7.8 million.
Superfund cleanup costs for hard rock mines in South Carolina are smaller than western states, such as Montana, where massive copper and gold mines have left a legacy of toxic pollution.
Still, the tab in South Carolina is a hefty cleanup bill for an area of the country that, until the 1980s, had almost no experience with large, open-pit gold mines.
The rise of a process called “heap leaching” in the 1980s made it possible for mining companies to recover small flecks of gold that previous mines could not get to. Heap leaching involved sprinkling cyanide on huge piles of rock. The cyanide forced gold particles from the rock, allowing companies to mine for even low-grade ore.
In the 1980s, four gold strip mines opened in SC, including one at the site where Romarco wants to establish a large new mine. Romarco’s new mine in Kershaw would not use the open-air heap-leaching process. But it would depend on cyanide to pull gold from rock that’s dug up, although in the more controlled environment of a tank.
South Carolina’s 1980s-era open-pit mines relied on toxic cyanide, which is believed to have contributed to the deaths of some birds and fish.
Another problem was that the mines dug up acid-generating rock. When exposed to air and water, rock with high sulfide levels generates sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid then drains metals into groundwater and creeks. Today, acid drainage is the biggest threat from many closed mines across the country, according to the EPA and some mining consultants.
As federal and state authorities work to stabilize and cleanse the McCormick and Chesterfield county sites, a private company remains in charge of the cleanup at South Carolina’s Ridgeway site, which operated from 1987 to 1999. The Fairfield County mine has remained off the Superfund list because its owner, Rio Tinto, has overseen the cleanup and reclamation at the site as promised when the mine opened.
Acid drainage near the closed tailings pond dam is being treated with limestone, a material that blunts the impacts of acid, according to a Sept. 5 DHEC memo. The seepage was identified several years ago, but records indicate it has not escaped the Rio Tinto site.