The State


Screen Shot 2021 05 07 at 12.48.37The reality of living near a gold mine is a worrisome thing, says Angel Estridge, whose family owns property less than a mile from a pond full of nasty mining waste.

She fears that leaks from the waste disposal pond could pollute well water, as well as a creek that runs by her family’s home, particularly since the mine has broken environmental laws multiple times. For now, she’s dealing with loud noises from the mine that keep people up at night, Estridge said.

“We’re on land that has been owned by our family for over 100 years in this area, and we were here first,’’ she said, calling the mine’s presence “really aggravating..’’

Estridge was among a handful of people to speak this past week against the Haile Gold Mine’s plan to expand so that it can dig more gold from the rocky soil of Lancaster County. State and federal regulators held a meeting Thursday to hear what the public thinks about the mine expansion plan and whether the environmental impacts have been studied well enough.

What regulators learned was that some people think expansion is a terrible idea. Although just seven people spoke at the virtual hearing, only one — a mine employee — said the expansion is worthwhile.

Another neighbor speaking against the expansion said he’s unnerved by the gold mine’s recent history of violating environmental laws. The Haile Gold Mine and a laboratory have been fined nearly $128,000 for breaking laws to protect the air and water since mining began in 2017, state records show.

“We have two creeks that are on our property that are unfortunately downstream from the mine,’’ said Chuck Sanders, who said he lives two miles away from the Haile site. “Having read over the last couple of years the different violations with mercury, cyanide, rat poison and so forth, I just wonder about the long-term effects, not only for our land, but for my children and my grandchildren. And I am definitely opposed to any expansion of the mine at this point.’’

The hearing centered on a plan by OceanaGold to enlarge its mining site by 832 acres. The existing site is a vast area of deep holes, tall rock piles, smothered creeks and cleared land. Recent drone footage, taken by a photographer for The State, revealed a gold digging operation similar in scope to many western U.S. gold mines.

As it expands the mine site from 4,552 acres to 5,372 acres, OceanaGold would dig up nearly 100 acres of wetlands and floodplains, while affecting more than two miles of creeks. Development projects don’t typically impact that many wetlands in South Carolina, a state studded with the soggy depressions that filter stormwater and harbor wildlife.

Areas of the mine that contain toxic material also would be enlarged. The mine wants to add more areas for potentially acid generating rock and increase the size of the tailings pond near Estridge’s home by about 20 percent. The tailings facility would hold about 72 million tons of waste material, which includes potentially deadly cyanide, according to plans. 

While mining pits would be enlarged, the company also plans to dig an underground mine, a new feature. That would be up to 1,314 feet below the surface. The company’s mill operations also would become larger, with the installation of a pebble crusher and other equipment to smash ore to a finer grain size, a DHEC official said at the hearing.

OceanaGold officials say they’ll restore much of the site once they finish mining in the early 2030s. They also say waste areas on the site would be properly lined, and some materials treated to reduce their toxicity. The company, an international firm headquartered in Australia, says it is committed to protecting the environment and boosting the economy. The mine says it has invested more than $1 billion in South Carolina since 2007, which is about the time miners began exploring the hills of Lancaster County for gold.

“The Haile Gold Mine has a significant positive impact to Lancaster County of $87 million each year,’’ OceanaGold executive Jim Whittaker said in a recent statement, citing a University of South Carolina study.

Expanding the Haile mine would have an even larger economic impact, records show. It could produce $256 million annually in gold and silver, while creating more than 200 jobs, the company has said. The mine now employs about 400 people, and is credited with pumping economic life into the once poverty-stricken town of Kershaw, just a few miles down the road.

Despite concerns about its environmental record, mine worker Joey Byrd said at the hearing that Haile runs a safe operation and is an asset to rural Lancaster County.

“Haile Gold Mine has had a tremendous positive impact on a lot of lives,’’ said Byrd, a mine employee who lives within 10 miles of the mine and favors the expansion. “It has my full support. I work there and I know the disciplines this company practices.’’

Officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers saidthey’ll listen to the public before making any final decisions on the mine. The agencies’ decisions involve a significant expansion, a DHEC official said. The public has until April 23 to comment on the plan.

“This is a complex site with many moving parts,’’ DHEC’s Jeremy Eddy said.

One issue that was mentioned only briefly at this past week’s hearing was whether OceanaGold would increase a cash bond to pay for any environmental damage. DHEC said the company’s existing $10 million bond will not be increased. Overall, the company has increased a financial package to pay for restoration and cleanup from $67 million to $81 million, but it largely relies on other financial mechanisms. Such mechanisms often include insurance.

OceanaGold, which acquired the South Carolina mine from Romarco Minerals, has mines around the world. Though gold prices are down this week, records show that overall rises in the price have made it possible to dig for gold that had previously been unaffordable to mine on the Haile property. Gold is selling for about $1,700 per ounce, according to Bloomberg News.

Since the mine opened, it has had multiple environmental violations. Most recently, state regulators said it violated a federal wastewater discharge law by releasing too much cyanide. The releases also killed water bugs.

OceanaGold’s most recently disclosed troubles follow three separate DHEC enforcement cases involving the Haile Gold Mine.

The agency said in September it had fined the mine $11,200. Among the problems were excessive water releases of thallium, a toxic material used in rat poison. Later in 2020, DHEC said it had fined the Kershaw Mineral Lab more than $16,000 for 19 environmental violations, including for hazardous waste.

Two months ago, DHEC said it had fined the mine $100,000 for breaking pollution rules. The mine exceeded the safe limit for mercury in the air, but did not tell the agency as required, state regulators say.

Several Sierra Club members who attended the meeting, as well as neighbors, said that is unacceptable.

Estridge, who also spoke for her father at the hearing, said expanding the mine is too risky, particularly since OceanaGold wants to increase the size of the cyanide-tainted tailings waste facility near her home.

“Them wanting to increase the storage to 72 million tons is a huge concern,’’ she said, calling the mine’s presence “very unnerving.’’