The state Sierra Club took legal action Wednesday to force stricter controls on the largest gold mine ever proposed for South Carolina, saying the industrial-scale operation could leave the public on the hook for a pollution cleanup long after the mine shuts down.
In an appeal that prompted ripples of concern from mine backers, the Sierra Club asked state regulators to increase the mine’s responsibility to repair environmental damage that’s expected from the 2,500-acre gold-digging operation, where some pits could exceed 800 feet deep.
The Sierra Club said the proposed mine should set aside more than the $60 million the state is requiring to repair environmental damage on the property near the town of Kershaw in Lancaster County. State regulators initially sought $80 million, but lowered the amount after the mine’s owner balked. The Sierra Club’s appeal says a fair amount would be $100 million to $500 million.
State regulators also should reconfigure plans to control possible pollution. Existing plans assume that plastic liners beneath acid-producing waste rock won’t leak and that long-term water treatment isn’t necessary, the appeal said. But that’s unrealistic, the appeal said. Because pollution from mines can linger for hundreds of years, the time the mine’s owner is responsible for managing the site should be longer, the club said. DHEC assumes the site will be stable after only 38 years, which is not enough time, the club says.
The appeal to the Department of Health and Environmental Control board is of a mining permit that agency staffers issued earlier this month. The agency’s approval is the last needed by Romarco Minerals Inc. to begin work on the gold mine.
Kershaw Mayor Wayne Rhodes said he was disappointed the appeal was filed. The legal challenge could slow down the opening of the mine – and people are depending on Romarco for hundreds of jobs, he said. Work was to begin as soon as January.
“People will be very upset,” Rhodes said. “There might be four people in town that want to slow this down. The other 99 percent want it. The Chamber of Commerce was getting geared up. We all were getting geared up. For something like this to happen, it’s a slap in the face.”
Romarco, headquartered in Canada, has actively sought permits for three years after locating several million ounces of gold in the Kershaw area. At today’s prices, the gold would be valued at about $2 billion.
Sierra Club lawyer Bob Guild said his group isn’t trying to stop the mine, but to protect the public from future liability.
“We’re looking for better safeguards for the environment once they walk away and better protection for taxpayers who would have to pick up the tab” if the mine owner does not, Guild said. “All of our experience with other mines is there is a strong risk that taxpayers will have to pay the tab.”
Two South Carolina gold mines that shut down 15 years ago left the public to pay at least $27.4 million in cleanup costs. The state also is now struggling to find money to protect Lake Marion from a hazardous waste dump whose owners filed for bankruptcy and closed the site in 2000.
Romarco’s proposed open-pit mine in Lancaster County dwarfs any gold mine ever established in the state and is of comparable size to those in the western United States. The gold-digging operation, at the site of the historic Haile Gold Mine, is expected to operate 14 to 15 years, meaning it would shut down around 2030.
But acid-draining rock and contaminants in a tailings waste pond will threaten the environment for generations, the Sierra Club said. Experts say acid rock drainage from metals mines can last for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The Sierra Club filed its appeal after The State newspaper in October chronicled environmental problems that metals mines in Montana and South Carolina left after the operations closed. Sites in both states have sent contaminated water into creeks and groundwater, leaving taxpayers with tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs, the newspaper found.
Attempts to reach Romarco chief executive Diane Garrett for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday, and an attorney for Romarco declined comment. But the Sierra Club appeal got the Toronto company’s attention Wednesday afternoon.
Within minutes of the appeal being filed, Guild said Garrett called and asked him to drop the challenge. She said it could jeopardize financing for the mining project, Guild said.
“She essentially said they were banking on being able to say that all permits were issued and they now will have to announce that there was an appeal,” Guild said. “She said ‘Can’t you just withdraw your appeal today?’ I said, ‘I’m afraid the cat’s out of the bag, Ms. Garrett.’”
Guild said he also received a call from state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who said the appeal could jeopardize jobs Romarco has promised for the rural area about 20 miles north Camden, his hometown. The company has said up to 800 people could be employed, several hundred in permanent jobs.
Sheheen, a Democrat recently defeated in his bid to unseat Gov. Nikki Haley, could not be reached Wednesday.
Until recently, Romarco had encountered little opposition to its plan to expand the Haile Gold mine. Job-starved Lancaster County residents said the mine could ease the economic burden left years ago by the closure of textile mills. Haley, whose jobs-first agenda helped win her re-election recently, championed the project in a glowing news release this month.
Also, the state Department of Natural Resources and three major environmental groups dropped opposition to the mine after Romarco agreed to protect nearly 5,000 acres of land in Lancaster and Richland counties to compensate for filling 120 acres of wetlands and miles of creeks. The Sierra Club did not participate in agreements Romarco struck with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the state Wildlife Federation and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
It’s unclear whether the appeal will be successful if DHEC deems it worthy of review. The agency’s board, chosen by Haley, is sympathetic to business interests. The S.C. Mining Council, which also would weigh in on the appeal, is composed of numerous mining industry officials.
A key point the Sierra Club makes in its appeal is that not only has DHEC not required enough financial assurance for a cleanup, but little of the package includes cash. In seeking $80 million from Romarco, DHEC initially wanted $10 million to be in cash. That amount has been reduced to $5 million. Much of the financial assurance package is contained in other financial mechanisms that are less reliable, records show.
The appeal also says DHEC relied on assumptions that the Haile Gold Mine site would not encounter problems that would drive up cleanup costs, but rarely are mines developed and operated without such issues developing.
“We sell ourselves cheap,” Guild said of South Carolina’s legacy of failing to hold companies accountable for pollution cleanups. “We have a long history. My fear is that without tightening these protections, South Carolina will fall into that trap one more time.”