Romarco Minerals Inc. says it won’t hire anyone to work at its industrial scale gold mine in Lancaster County until a legal challenge by environmentalists is resolved.
Diane Garrett, the Canadian company’s chief officer, said in a conference call Thursday that the company has received 3,500 resumes from people seeking to work for the mining company at its proposed gold-digging operation near the town of Kershaw.
She called the impact of the Sierra Club’s appeal this week “very disheartening,” but said the company would vigorously defend itself against the legal challenge.
“Unfortunately, until the current matter is resolved, we’re not going to be in position to begin hiring activity,” Garrett said, addressing South Carolina residents in the conference call. “We want all of you to know that this team remains committed to your community, to our community, and will continue to work with you and for you to see the development of Haile become a reality.”
Romarco Minerals has said the project would employ as many as 800 people in various jobs, several hundred of which would be permanent positions at the mine. The governor’s office recently said employment would be about 270 people.
The site would be the largest open-pit gold mine ever developed in South Carolina and rival some western gold mines in scale. The mine will disturb some 2,500 acres and dig eight mining pits, at least one of which would be 840 feet deep. Romarco has said the mine will be the largest in the eastern United States.
The state Sierra Club appealed a Department of Health and Environmental mining permit Wednesday. The permit is the last one Romarco needs to begin work early next year on the project.
Sierra Club officials said they’re not trying to stop the project, but say South Carolina needs greater assurances the environment will be protected long after the mine shuts down in about 2030. Acid drainage from mines like Romarco’s can last for hundreds of years if not properly managed.
One of the main questions is whether Romarco is being required to post enough money to assure that a cleanup can occur without taxpayers getting involved, according to the Sierra Club. The club also says Romarco is effectively being required to be responsible for cleanup work for 38 years, when mines can have problems for hundreds of years.
The club says the $60 million DHEC is requiring Romarco to post may not be adequate since the agency previously sought $80 million and some mining consultants have said an adequate bond may need to be more than $100 million.
Two abandoned gold mines in South Carolina failed to post adequate bonds before shutting down and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill some 15 years ago. Those properties in McCormick and Chesterfield counties are federal Superfund sites that have cost the public $27.4 million in cleanup costs, The State newspaper reported last month.
The state also is struggling to find money to prevent a toxic waste dump at Lake Marion from leaking. Like the gold mines, the dump’s former operator shut down without leaving enough money for cleanup work.
“History teaches us these kinds of operations never function exactly as planned, especially long into the future, abandoned mines need perpetual maintenance,” Susan Corbett, chapter chair with the state Sierra Club, said in a news release Thursday. “The lack of adequate clean-up and monitoring funds has left S.C. taxpayers holding the bag for millions, if not billions of dollars on a variety of fronts, including other mines and landfill sites.
“Are we ever going to learn from these experiences? It’s better to err on the side of caution, and put more money aside, than expect future taxpayers, who never benefited from these operations, to pay to clean up the mess left by failed reclamation models or unplanned events that sabotage the plan.”
In the conference call, however, Garrett said the $60 million bond is more than enough for the Lancaster County gold mine. Company consultants placed the actual bond amount at closer to $42 million, but the company agreed to pay more after negotiations with DHEC, she said.
Garrett also said that while many mines have had problems, others have operated well. She cited the previous operators of the area where Romarco plans to mine for gold. The company plans to reopen and sharply expand the old Haile Gold Mine, a site of gold digging off and on since the early 1800s. Up to $2 billion worth of gold lies in the ground the company plans to mine, Romarco says.
For now, Romarco is “in a holding pattern” until the DHEC board decides whether to hold a hearing on the Sierra Club’s request, Garrett said. The matter could drag on for several months, according to the schedule she laid out for investors Thursday, but Garrett said she hopes the matter could be resolved as soon as DHEC’s Dec. 11 board meeting. A short delay would not hurt company plans, she said.
Romarco, headquartered in Toronto, now has about $18 million in cash on hand. It also has $200 million in financing for the mine project, but that depends on final permit approvals, Garrett said. The company has delayed from this month until spring the purchase of major equipment needed to mine the site.
Garrett said in addition to a freeze on hiring, agreements to protect nearly 5,000 acres in South Carolina are also on hold. The property in Lancaster and Richland counties is being offered to offset the loss of 120 acres of wetlands and miles of streams from mining near Kershaw.
Unlike the Sierra Club, three of the state’s major environmental groups and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources signed off on the mine because large tracts of ecologically important land was being offered to compensate for wetlands losses.