The Haile Mine near Kershaw, South Carolina first struck gold in 1827. Back then, the Carolinas lead the nation in gold mining until California’s 1849 Gold Rush drove our Manifest Destiny westward. Since then, most hardrock mining has occurred in the Mountain West where large tracts of public land allow mining companies to remove America’s precious metals for free under the 1872 mining law.
But now it appears the miners will return. The Canadian Company, Romarco, now operates eleven exploratory drills near the Haile mine shuttered since 1990. Improved technology now allows Romarco to grind microscopic bits of gold- no thicker than a human hair- from the rolling sandhills of the Palmetto State. The company estimates they can extract two grams of gold from each ton of toxic waste they dig up.
This toxic mine waste, laced with mercury, arsenic, lead and other poisons has to go somewhere. Fortunately for Romarco, along with improving technology, the regulatory environment has “improved” mining’s economic viability. Loopholes in the Clean Water Act allow mining polluters to dump their toxins in to rivers, lakes, and streams. A pretty cheap disposal option. In the case of the Haile mine, we’re talking about mechanized land clearing, grubbing, stockpiling, filling, and excavation impacting 162 acres of freshwater wetlands and more than seven miles of streams.
Romarco is busy buying up over 4,231 acres of land in Lancaster County to host their eight proposed open pit mines. So far, the project has required a massive rezoning including the relocation of forty-eight gravesites. In order to start digging, Romarco will need a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE or the Corps). USACE’s initial draft Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) was due for December 2012, but experienced a delay because Romarco has yet to furnish the Corps with important requested information about their plans.
Delays of this sort are very common. Discerning how much of the mine’s toxic pollution will enter the Lynches River requires, according to Romarco President Diane Garrett, “…complex models and they take time.” The Corps is equipped to perform this kind of work. What really takes time are delays created by Romarco’s changes to their mining plan of operations.
And that’s the real point that should percolate among policy makers at the national level. For too long, mining advocates have railed against the length of time it takes to receive a permit. Seemingly everyone from the National Mining Association, to Mined in America, to the American Legislative Exchange Council eerily sing from the same hymnal: It takes 7-10 years to receive a permit in the United States, dead last in the world, behind even Papua New Guinea.
To put it generously, the claim is wildly misleading. The Bureau of Land Management permit review process for a large mine takes, on average, four years– not ten, not even seven. To the extent permitting takes longer than average, the reason is that the mining companies switch up their plans. Each time a mining company alters what they want to do, the agency must re-evaluate. A little like starting all over again. This is exactly what has happened with the Draft EIS for Haile due last month.
So, as mining companies continue to make their push toward larger population centers on the Eastern Seaboard, they continue to complain about a bureaucratic permitting process slowing their destructive path. We must remind them that this pace is largely one of their own making. We must remind them that our lakes are not “waste treatment systems” and dumping arsenic-laced toxins is not “fill”. Silencing community voices, subverting environmental protections, and cutting corners during the permit process, will not speed things up. Only mining companies getting their act together will.