Mine within months of producing gold after nearly a decade of effort

Gold drips from a rocky chunk of earth dug from a new mining site north of Camden.
Gold drips from a rocky chunk of earth dug from a new mining site north of Camden. sfretwell@thestate.com

COLUMBIA, SC By the end of this year, miners expect to begin unearthing potentially billions of dollars in gold north of Camden after nearly a decade of efforts.

OceanaGold., an Australian-headquartered company, has cleared parts of its mining site, begun construction of a mill and started excavating mining pits near the town of Kershaw, company officials said.

Once work crews scrape away rock that sits atop the gold, OceanaGold will begin extracting the precious metal and processing it in the mill, officials said at a geology conference Thursday in Columbia. OceanaGold should be pulling gold from the first of eight mining pits within eight months, officials said. A tailings waste pond also is under construction.

“We went from exploration, where we were employing a hundred people, until now, when the job site is four times busier,’’ OceanaGold’s James Berry told The State newspaper. “We’re getting ready to get to the ore.’’

The company, which led a tour of the site Wednesday for more than 30 visiting geologists, provided a brief update Thursday during the Geological Society of America’s southeastern conference at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

After the meeting, Berry said the company still has plans to mine up to 2 million ounces of gold. The company has located another 2 million ounces that could be mined later. At more than $1,200 per ounce, the value of the gold identified in Kershaw would be nearly $5 billion.

Efforts to open the mine began about nine years ago when an exploration company located substantial deposits at the site of the historic Haile Gold Mine, Berry said. But the initiative took years, in part because OceanaGold’s predecessor, Romarco Minerals Inc., had to secure an array of environmental permits. The company’s proposal sparked large community meetings, questions from state and federal regulators, and skepticism from environmental groups.

The OceanaGold mine, with pits of more than 800 feet deep, would be the largest mining operation of its kind in the eastern United States. It will extract gold from open pits, but the company also has considered a shaft mine.

Conservationists were hesitant to endorse the project because it could destroy as many as 1,100 acres of wetlands and increase the chances that acid would drain from the mining operation into groundwater and streams, as had happened at other mining sites in South Carolina. But Romarco secured its final environmental permit early in 2015 and within seven months had agreed to merge with OceanaGold, which also operates mines in Asia.

Many environmental groups backed away from their opposition after Romarco agreed to buy nearly 5,000 acres of land near Columbia and Kershaw for use as nature preserves. The state Sierra Club was the lone holdout, eventually challenging a mining permit. The club settled the case after Romarco agreed to double the amount of cash it would post for an environmental cleanup. Romarco agreed to post $10 million in cash as part of the settlement.

Berry said the company today has taken extra precautions to protect the environment, including a system to control acid drainage -- a persistent problem at gold mines across the country. He also said the mine’s economic impact is helping the town of Kershaw.

The former textile town had one of the highest unemployment rates in the area at one time. The company has said it expects to employ up to 800 workers through the project’s entire 13-year life.