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Report: Gold mine means 1,100 acres of wetlands would be disturbed

By Sammy Fretwell
The (Columbia) State
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Sammy Fretwell - THE (COLUMBIA) STATE
This creek rests at the site of Romarco Minerals’ proposed Lancaster County, S.C., mine and could be destroyed. The gold mine would be the largest open-pit gold digging operation ever developed in South Carolina, and the federal government recently completed its environmental review of it.

COLUMBIA The federal government has completed its environmental review of what is touted to be the largest gold mine in the eastern United States, and it will use the information to make a final decision late this fall on the operation north of Camden, S.C.

Released Friday, the study contains many of the same conclusions as a preliminary report from March that said up to 1,100 acres of wetlands would be dug up, destroyed or disturbed as gold mining is conducted over 15 years near the town of Kershaw, S.C.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which conducted the study, will decide on the wetlands permit in November, agency spokesman Sean McBride said Friday.

“Our obligation … is to identify and evaluate all potential environmental effects of the proposed project and disclose them,” Corps project manager Richard Darden said.

Romarco Minerals’ proposed mine is expected to be the largest open-pit gold digging operation ever developed in South Carolina. The Canadian corporation says the Lancaster County mine, located halfway between Columbia and Charlotte, would be one of the few east of the Mississippi River and the largest in the eastern United States.

The mine site is on 4,552 acres, about half of which would be used for digging gold.

Some pits would extend more than 800 feet deep. Mining the site would affect, either directly or indirectly, as many as 1,100 acres of wetlands, an amount greater than any proposed for a development project in South Carolina today.

Much of the impact would result when the mine lowers groundwater levels to keep open gold pits dry. In perspective, the 1,100 acres would rival the size of some state parks in South Carolina and be about twice the size of the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia.

Substantial scars

Corps officials expect many wetlands to recover eventually, but they concede the gold mine’s scars on the landscape still would be substantial. At least 120 acres likely would be lost forever, an amount in its own right that is larger than most projects pending before the Corps in South Carolina.

In addition to wetlands impacts, the mine also would affect up to 24 miles of creeks, many buried by mining waste. It also would include a toxin-tinged waste tailings pond.

Romarco Minerals, the Canadian company seeking to dig the mine, said the final environmental report moves the project forward after three years of study. The company says it is trying to minimize the environmental affects of gold mining.

“We are pleased that the process has reached this point and grateful for the overwhelming support of the local community,” Romarco president Diane Garrett said in a news release.

Romarco previously has received state approvals to discharge water and air pollution, as well as a dam permit and a stormwater construction permit. The company still needs a state mine operating permit, a state water quality certification and the federal wetlands permit to begin excavation.

The company’s plan is to reopen and expand the historic Haile Gold Mine, an operation that dates to the early 1800s.

The site has been mined periodically through the years but never to the extent proposed by Romarco. The company plans to dig deep for tiny flecks of gold that could not be reached by past operations. Higher gold prices make the effort possible.

Community support

Romarco’s plan has drawn praise throughout Kershaw, a tiny community with high unemployment.

A recent hearing drew hundreds of people, most of whom said they back the gold mine to help the economy and provide badly needed jobs. Up to 800 jobs, both temporary and permanent, have been forecast to be created.

The mine has met mixed resistance from environmental groups and natural resource agencies because Romarco has offered 3,700 acres of waterfront land near Columbia as compensation for wetlands losses in Lancaster County.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources supports the mine because of the land being offered along the Wateree River, which includes Goodwill Plantation and Cook’s Mountain in lower Richland County – a unique land formation long coveted by conservationists for public ownership.

The only major environmental group to openly challenge the mine is the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has said the Richland County land isn’t adequate to offset the damage that is likely to occur in Lancaster County.

The Richland property is more than an hour away from the Lancaster County mine site and in another watershed. Such out-of-watershed trades are often frowned upon by the federal government.

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