Australian miners who began digging for gold in Lancaster County two years ago say they have found more of the precious metal near the town of Kershaw.
OceanaGold is seeking to expand the Haile Gold Mine so that it can extract more of the ore, which “has significant value,’’ according to state and federal documents.
The documents do not specify how much the additional ore might be worth.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and OceanaGold first must study whether expanding the mine will hurt wetlands, creeks, groundwater and wildlife. The Corps of Engineers issued a notice Dec. 4 that it would prepare a detailed report on the mine’s potential environmental impacts.
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Before mining began, company officials had said up to $2 billion worth of gold potentially is in the ground at the Haile site, a historic mine that OceanaGold reopened to reclaim additional deposits discovered in the area.
“The OceanaGold-Haile operation team has made tremendous progress in our first two years of production,’’ according to a statement from David Thomas, vice president and director for OceanaGold in the United States. “With the proposed expansion, we will continue to operate at the highest industry standards while delivering on our commitments to the Kershaw community and to the state of South Carolina.”
OceanaGold wants state permission to stockpile low-grade ore in an old parking lot, as well as build a road to access that ore, according to a May 18 letter from OceanaGold to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Those requests also would need federal approval.
Mine reopened two years ago
The reopening of the gold mine more than two years ago widely was supported in Kershaw, a town of about 2,000 north of Camden that was suffering economically before OceanaGold arrived. Unemployment was high, in part because the town’s once robust textile economy had faded.
But the Haile Gold mine has been a point of contention.
In 2014, environmental groups and some local residents expressed concern the mine would destroy vast acreages of wetlands, suck up groundwater people needed for drinking and pollute the water with acid that drains from the mine, a common problem at gold mines.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initially opposed the plan.
The S.C. Sierra Club challenged the mine after The State’s 2014 series on the hazards of gold mining, eventually persuading OceanaGold’s predecessor, Romarco Minerals, to put up an extra $5 million in cash to restore and clean up the site after mining ceases.
In total, the mining company agreed to put up $65 million for cleanup work. About $10 million of that was to be cash, including the additional $5 million the Sierra Club pushed for.
OceanaGold officials say expanding their operation won’t hurt the environment, but Corps officials say they need more information before they can sign off on the expansion.
“Based on the available information, the Corps has determined that the expansion of the mine has the potential to significantly affect the quality of the human environment,’’ the agency said.
Bob Guild, a Sierra Club attorney who challenged the original mine expansion, said the new plan to expand the mine needs scrutiny. He said he would expect his organization to weigh in, and he will push for OceanaGold to set aside more money to clean up and restore the site when the mine closes.
“We’ll follow it closely,’’ Guild said Friday. “I envision a lot of opportunity for stakeholders to look at this.’’
200-year-old gold-mining site
The Haile Gold Mine is on a 4,600-acre site.
Some of the deepest holes in the state are being excavated for the open-pit mining operation, including a nearly 900-foot-deep pit. All told, eight pits originally were planned for the site, one of the few large, open-pit gold mines in the eastern United States.
OceanaGold’s mine is a nearly 200-year-old gold-mining site that long had been closed when Romarco began looking again for gold nearly 10 years ago. The Canadian company found deposits of gold at the Haile site that miners could not reach in the past.
After a lengthy effort, the company ultimately received permits to dig up as much as 1,100 acres of wetlands to reopen and expand the Haile mine. It then sold the operation to OceanaGold, a more experienced mining company. OceanaGold, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, operates mines in the Philippines and New Zealand, as well as the United States.
Gold mines aren’t as common in the eastern United States as in the West, but the Lancaster County area is part of a slate belt that contained some of the nation’s first gold mines.