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SC takes control of Cook’s Mountain in gold mine deal

View from the top of Cook's Mountain
View from the top of Cook's Mountain S.C. DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES

People soon will be able to climb Richland County’s only “mountain” as part of a deal that will allow a gold mine company to launch operations just north of Camden.

The state of South Carolina has taken possession of prized undeveloped land in Richland and Lancaster counties, including Cook’s Mountain, that it will open to the public this summer under an agreement with Romarco Minerals Inc.

After more than five years of efforts, Romarco recently began work on the gold mine – and, this week, the company transferred Cook’s Mountain, Goodwill Plantation and Rainbow Ranch to the state Department of Natural Resources as compensation for the mine’s environmental impacts, officials said.

“We’re proud and we’re very excited about this,” DNR permitting director Bob Perry said. “It is a big deal. It is going to be a showcase heritage preserve and public-use area.”

Perry said his agency plans to open much of the property to the public by early July following maintenance work.

“We already have staff working on it,” Perry said.

Romarco, a Canadian corporation, bought the land and is deeding the 4,400-acres to the state in exchange for allowing the company to dig what’s expected to be the largest gold mine in the eastern United States. The mine, which will gouge deep holes in the land of rural Lancaster County, will affect up to 1,100 acres of wetlands. That required Romarco under federal law to protect other land as compensation.

The company at one point had offered to pay more than $23 million for the property. The final sales price was not immediately available Friday.

Goodwill Plantation and Cook’s Mountain, which sit next to each other along the Wateree River in lower Richland, have been privately owned and available only for public tours by invitation. Those properties collectively make up about 3,700 acres.

Cook’s Mountain has been sought after by conservationists for years because it is one of the most unusual land formations in central South Carolina. It rises nearly 400 feet above sea level, making it one of the tallest natural spots in the flat land of lower Richland County. The mountain is undeveloped, but does include an education center and a home near the top. From that area, visitors can take in sweeping views of the Wateree River flood plain, looking into neighboring Sumter County.

Goodwill Plantation, which has 100-foot high bluffs along the Wateree River, is full of historic sites, gum and cypress swamps and clear-running streams.

Both Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation will make up the new Wateree River Heritage Preserve. The preserve will be open to the public, although some hours may be limited during hunting season. The properties add to efforts to save land in a 215,000-acre area known as the Cowassee Basin near Congaree National Park, which is just a few miles down river from Cook’s and Goodwill.

Rainbow Ranch, in Lancaster County, is nearly 700 acres and will be added to the existing Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve. The property includes about 8,500 feet along Flat Creek, which has been designated critical habitat by the federal government for the endangered Carolina heelsplitter mussel.

In addition to the property transfers, Romarco Minerals has provided $2.2 million to the Department of Natural Resources to manage and conduct research on the properties. The company will over time pay $9.4 million for management and research, according to the agreement to allow the gold mine.

Romarco’s transfer of land to the DNR ends a long and sometimes controversial fight to mine gold in South Carolina, a state with historic deposits of the precious mineral. The company is reopening and dramatically expanding the old Haile Gold mine, a project the company says will provide hundreds of jobs to the economically depressed Kershaw area north of Camden.

Many people in the area have supported the mine because of the jobs, but the Sierra Club challenged a mining permit last year after The State newspaper reported on pollution problems associated with gold mines in Montana and South Carolina.

Gold mines produce acid-draining rock that can continue to pollute the environment for hundreds of years. The Sierra Club dropped its legal challenge after Romarco agreed to spend an extra $5 million to pay to fix the expected environmental damage after the mine closes in about 2030. All told, the company is securing $65 million, including $10 million in cash, to address damage from the mine.

DNR officials and many environmental groups were initially hesitant about the mine, but later dropped their opposition after the Richland and Lancaster properties were offered as compensation. Environmental groups also separately cut a deal to preserve extra land in Lancaster County, although that property will not be managed by DNR.

“The protection of Cook’s Mountain, Rainbow Ranch, and Goodwill Plantation caps an unprecedented cooperative effort to conserve, restore and recover outstanding and imperiled natural resources in South Carolina,” said Tom McCoy, an official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These properties protect important habitat for at-risk species as well as designated critical habitat for the endangered Carolina heelsplitter mussel. Combined with the funding endowment, we will partner with DNR with vital, on-the-ground recovery efforts for imperiled species that would be extremely difficult to achieve otherwise.”

WORK UNDER WAY

Romarco announced this week that it began working on the mine in May. The company says it plans to produce the first gold by the fourth quarter of 2016. It expects to have hired 350 people by the end of this year.

Much of the work underway now involves clearing land for the project, which would include eight mining pits. One of the pits is expected to be more than 800 feet deep.

The entire project covers some 2,500 acres.

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