Possible billions in gold sparks SC mine expansion

June 28, 2019

KERSHAW, S.C. (AP) — Potentially rich deposits of gold in South Carolina are fueling a proposed expansion of a huge mine that has some excited about the prospect of 250 new jobs in a tiny community halfway between Columbia and Charlotte.

OceanaGold’s expansion plan says the Australia-based company would increase its existing 4,552-acre (1842 hectare) Haile Gold Mine site by more than 900 acres (364 hectares) near Kershaw. According to plans filed with the state, the company is seeking to dig an underground mine that would extend up to 1,314 feet (400.5 meters) below the surface, while combining five existing excavation pits at the site in southern Lancaster County.

A waste lagoon, known as a tailings pond, would be enlarged by about 20% to handle more mining waste, according to plans. Records show the area of the tailings pond, which will hold cyanide waste, would rise from 524 acres to 632 acres. The bigger pond would have the capacity to hold 72 million tons, up from 40 million tons

The expansion also would roughly triple the amount of potentially acid generating rock that will be piled up and stored at the mining site, according to the expansion application filed June 13 with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Acid drainage and cyanide are among the major environmental threats from gold mines across the country, contaminating groundwater and rivers in some places.

The State reports the proposed project still needs approval from federal and state environmental regulators.

Some are leery of how more digging might affect the landscape.

“We recognize that mining jobs are valuable to the local economy, but there are boom and bust problems that the gold mining industry has a painful history with,” the Sierra Club’s Bob Guild said. “From an environmental perspective, we are trying to make sure we address these problems.”

OceanaGold has said it will take every precaution to make sure the mining operation is safe for workers and doesn’t scar the environment.

“Safety is a priority at OceanaGold,” said David Thomas, a company vice president.

Among other things, waste areas will have synthetic liners to keep toxins from seeping into the ground, the company said. The company plans to fill in many of the pits it digs once it has pulled out all the gold. And the company said it will continue using a cyanide treatment process to lower the waste’s potential toxicity to birds that might land in the tailings pond.

OceanaGold’s Haile mine is the largest open-pit gold mining operation in the eastern United States, rivaling the size of some mines in the West. The South Carolina mine cranked up operations about three years ago.

At least $2 billion worth of gold was initially projected to exist far below the surface. OceanaGold now wants to mine some gold that previously had been too expensive to dig up. The rising price of gold in recent years has made it affordable to dig for those deposits, the company said. The price of gold this week was about $1,400 per ounce.

So far, the OceanaGold operation has relied on strip mining to extract gold. One mining pit is projected to reach more than 1,200 feet into the ground, making it the deepest in South Carolina, company and state officials said in emails. The new underground mine would involve digging a tunnel and hauling gold-bearing rocks to the surface.

Kershaw Mayor Mark Dorman said the mine has provided an economic boost to the one-time textile community since opening. Vacant houses have been rented or sold to mine workers, tax revenues are up and restaurants are bustling, he said.

“When Springs Mills closed .... that’s where most of the people were employed,” Dorman said of the plant that shut down more than 20 years ago. “People had to start seeking employment elsewhere. With the gold mine coming in, that kind of took the place of the textile industry. That gives the people an opportunity to work.”

The company now employs about 400 people, but will increase its workforce by 250 as the mine reaches peak production in the next five years, records show.

A 2018 study by the University of South Carolina’s business school said reopening the Haile Gold Mine has had an $87 million annual economic impact on Lancaster County, OceanaGold said.

The mine is expected to close in 2031, but Dorman said the community will benefit with more gold mining.

“I think it’s a great thing they are going to expand,” Dorman said. “It’s going to create more jobs in this community and surrounding area.”

Despite company assurances and the promise of jobs, the Sierra Club’s Guild said the expansion will need a thorough environmental review.

The Sierra Club, the only South Carolina environmental group to fight the mine’s opening, succeeded in 2015 in forcing the company to put up an extra $5 million in cash to pay for a cleanup if any environmental damage occurs. That increased the cleanup bond required by DHEC to $65 million. The Sierra Club took action after The State reported on contamination that resulted from metals mining in Montana and South Carolina.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to conduct an environmental study to see how the expanded mine would affect wetlands and creeks around the mining site. The study could take much of this year to complete.

DHEC said it won’t make a decision on the mine expansion permit until after the Corps’ supplemental environmental impact statement is completed, which could take months to complete.

Guild said people need to be aware that Kershaw’s economic gain will only be temporary since the mine plans to close in the next 15 years.

“Fifteen years down the road, all those jobs go away, all those stores close and suddenly those houses get abandoned and not maintained,” he said, noting that there is “nothing to suggest they have adequately addressed the additional environmental burden on South Carolina once the gold rush is over.”


Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com

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