Miners dig for $2 billion in gold near SC town

Tour of historic Haile Gold Mine

The historic Haile Gold Mine, in Lancaster County, SC, is now owned by OceanaGold, a global gold mining company. The company took the media on a tour of its facilities, Thursday, April 27, 2017.
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The historic Haile Gold Mine, in Lancaster County, SC, is now owned by OceanaGold, a global gold mining company. The company took the media on a tour of its facilities, Thursday, April 27, 2017.

The moonscape that’s developing north of town is a busy place two years after an Australian corporation bought the historic Haile Gold Mine and began excavating the rocky soil of Lancaster County.

Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

On a warm spring afternoon, 100-ton dump trucks hauled rock and dirt from the bottom of a mining pit and deposited their cargo at a mill that was built to process the precious metal. Once at the mill, crushing machines pulverized the rocks to extract flecks of gold.

Miners scurried everywhere, working on the pit floor or analyzing samples in a materials laboratory.

The effort Thursday is what occurs most every day at Haile, a nearly 200-year-old mining site that has reopened because it still contains gold. While gold nuggets were extracted years ago, microscopic amounts of the precious metal lie deep beneath the surface today.

“The old guys have taken all the easy stuff, and now we are really taking” the rest, said Quenton Johnston, a process manager for the mine’s owner, OceanaGold.

Projections indicate that as much as 2 million ounces – valued at more than $2 billion – still remain in the ground. With the price of gold at more than $1,250 an ounce, it’s worth the effort to dig it up and process the material, miners say.

OceanaGold, an Australian company, bought the Haile Gold Mine from Canada’s Romarco Minerals in 2015 after Romarco had obtained environmental permits from state and federal regulators to open the mine. The mine, which is five times larger than the old Haile mine, is the only open pit gold mine of any size in the eastern United States.

The project now is fully underway and is producing gold bars. The process involves melting gold and draining it into a mold, where the metal hardens into a gold bar. The first gold bar was poured in January. The bars are about 80 percent gold, with the rest mostly silver and copper. The bars are then sent out of state for processing into pure gold.

The Haile Gold Mine project will ramp up in coming years gradually before closing in about 15 years.

One mining pit already is about 250 feet deep, and excavation on another has recently started. All told, eight pits will pockmark the 4,600 acres near Kershaw, a town of 2,000 people. The initial pit being excavated resembles a kind of man-made crater with terraced, hard-rock walls.

It’s a major impact on the land and is one reason the project was scrutinized by state and federal regulators before they finally approved the mining work. The work will affect as many as 1,100 acres of wetlands, burying some creeks with earth and rocks.

The deepest pit, which has not yet been started, will extend 900 feet into the ground, rivaling the size of any hole ever dug in the state. The company plans to develop an underground shaft mine, but no work has started on that.

OceanaGold also has developed a tailings pond, or waste pond, to handle wastewater produced in the gold extraction process. Small amounts of cyanide, which company officials say is well within limits acceptable for exposure to wildlife, will be released into the pond after most of the cyanide is destroyed in a chemical process.

The historic Haile Gold Mine, in Lancaster County, is now owned by OceanaGold, a global gold mining company. The company took the media on a tour of its facilities Thursday, April 27, 2017. Pictured is the Tailings Storage Facility at the mine. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Mark Cadzow, executive vice president for OceanaGold, said his company is running a modern mining operation he believes will be efficient and continue to help the local economy. More than 1,000 people, including contract employees, work at the site. OceanaGold employs 350 people directly. The project, which drew criticism from some environmentalists when first proposed, has proven popular in job-starved Kershaw.

Mark Cadzow, Executive Vice President & Chief Development Officer, talks about the mining process during a tour of OceanaGold Haile Operation Thursday, April 27, 2017. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

As he stood on an observation deck near the 500-acre tailings pond, Cadzow said his company has put in efforts to make sure it doesn’t pollute the environment. While the mine has destroyed wetlands, it has been designed to minimize any threat that acid will drain off the property and into streams – or that cyanide will expose wildlife to dangers.

Some tailings ponds at older mines have held water so toxic it was a threat to birds that landed on the water. In Kershaw, OceanaGold’s cyanide process kills off virtually all of the toxic material before it is released into the tailings pond, said Scott McDaniel, the OceanaGold environmental manager. The tailings pond also is lined with thick plastic, as a precaution.

“This is all about responsible mining,’’ Cadzow said. “We’ve all got to live on this planet together. Our first thoughts about mining are how can we do this responsibly.’’

The Haile site has been mined as far back as the early 19th century. It lies in an area called the slate belt, a rocky region that runs from Virginia to Georgia. The area has a history of producing gold.

OceanaGold, in addition to the South Carolina site, operates gold mines in the Philippines and New Zealand. In 2017, the company expects to produce up to 610,000 ounces of gold worldwide. About 150,000 ounces will be produced at the Haile Gold Mine this year, company officials said Thursday.