March 6, 2015

Deal reached with environmental group over planned mine in Lancaster County

Map of the Haile Gold Mine site (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Map of the Haile Gold Mine site (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

A Canadian company hoping to build a massive gold mine in Lancaster County has now reached an agreement with the environmental group who was seeking to block it.

Romarco Minerals agreed in a settlement announced Thursday that it would set aside twice as much cash to clean up the proposed Haile Gold Mine when it eventually closes the site north of Kershaw. The Sierra Club’s chapter in South Carolina had challenged the company’s state mining permit, arguing Romarco was not committing enough to cover any environmental damage that exceeded expectations. The company has stated it believes $60 million is plenty.

Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control had already approved the 4,552-acre project. The Sierra Club had challenged the DHEC permit, but the agency’s refused to reconsider last month. As part of the new settlement, the environmental group agreed not to appeal the decision to the state mining council. Romarco had freezed hiring at the site until the legal action was complete.

DHEC had required Romarco to set aside a $65 million bond to cover environmental damage, including $5 million in cash. The settlement will instead require $10 million in cash, according to Sierra Club SC chair Susan Corbett.

“We’re pretty happy with the situation,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. “Obviously, if we had our way, we wouldn’t want a mine. But we understand we have to have mining in the world that we live in today because we need these precious metals. We just want to make sure it’s done in the most responsible manner for the environment.”

The Sierra Club was the last conservation group opposing the mine. Most others agreed to drop their opposition after Romarco pledged to acquire 4,388 acres of land along the Lynches and Wateree River watersheds and donate their ownership to the South Carolina Heritage Trust Program. Those tracts include two properties in Richland County and one in Lancaster County.

“We are pleased that we were able to find a way to avoid delay and litigation and keep our employees working,” Romarco CEO Diane Garrett said in a statement after the settlement was revealed.

The mine’s permit was to become effective on November 21, but that was delayed after Sierra Club filed the challenge.

The Haile Gold Mine has been the site of mining activities for the better part of two centuries. Activities stopped at the site back in the 1990s, but Romarco says technology improvements now make it feasible to dig for deeper gold deposits.

DHEC director says she will step down next week

DHEC director Catherine Templeton (FILE)

DHEC director Catherine Templeton (FILE)

The top environmental and public health official in South Carolina state government will step down next week, according to a release from her office.

Department of Health and Environmental Control director Catherine Templeton made the announcement during the monthly meeting of the agency’s board on Thursday. Her last day at the agency will be January 12.

“When Governor (Nikki) Haley pulled me from the private sector, I promised her four years of public service and I have fulfilled my commitment,” Templeton said in the release. “I’m looking forward to serving the state from a different position.” She did not explain what her future plans were. Her term expires next year.

Gov. Haley first appointed the Charleston labor attorney to the state Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation when she took office in 2011. When previous DHEC commissioner Earl Hunter announced his retirement in September 2011, the governor eventually nominated Templeton as his replacement.

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Ports Authority, conservationists forge agreement on deepening Charleston Harbor

The State Ports Authority announced Monday that it will donate $5 million towards land conservation efforts as it prepares to dredge Charleston Harbor down to 52 feet.

The Ports Authority board unanimously approved the resolution with the Coastal Conservation League shortly before agency officials teamed with conservation groups and Gov. Nikki Haley to make the announcement at a private plantation along the Cooper River in the town of Huger — more than 20 miles northeast of Charleston.

The Ports Authority is hoping the funds will help offset some environmental damage caused by deepening the harbor as it prepares to handle new, larger container ships. The donation, which must be approved by the Joint Bond Review Committee later this month, will come from funds set aside by the General Assembly to deepen the harbor

Lowcountry Open Land Trust Executive Director Elizabeth Hagood said her organization would handle the funds. She said they would work to leverage the money with grants from the South Carolina Conservation Bank and other groups to protect the Cooper River watershed through land purchases and conservation easements.

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Officials to determine if monarch butterfly should be on endangered species list

Image: US Dept of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service

Image: US Dept of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

Federal wildlife officials are studying whether or not to put a butterfly often found in South Carolina on its endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it will conduct a status review for monarch butterflies under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A coalition of environmental advocates led by the Center for Biodiversity petitioned for the review in September.

Monarchs are found throughout the United States and southern Canada. Some populations migrate vast distances to winter in Mexico – a journey of over 3,000 miles. The Fish & Wildlife Service said in its announcement that some threats the butterflies include habitat loss – particularly the loss of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s sole food source – and deaths caused by pesticide use. Monarch populations have declined significantly in recent years. Experts say the number of monarchs arriving at wintering grounds in Mexico has been on the decline.

The Fish & Wildlife Service is asking the scientific community for more information during the required 60-day public comment period. After a March 2 deadline, the agency will review the comments and other information before deciding if the monarch should be considered threatened. The agency said that would happen by September 2015. But any additional protections, including classification as “endangered” would likely take years.

While monarchs are found in South Carolina, they are most prevalent along the coast while they migrate southward each fall.

With new agreement, all SC utilities committed to cleaning up coal ash

W.S. Lee Steam Station (Image: Duke Energy)

W.S. Lee Steam Station (Image: Duke Energy)

With Duke Energy’s announcement last week that it will remove 3.2 million tons of coal ash from ponds at its W.S. Lee power plant in Anderson County, all of South Carolina’s power utilities now have plans in place to dispose of the toxic coal byproducts that have been stored in water for decades.

Coal ash is leftover material from the coal-burning process that includes toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead. It is often mixed with water and stored in manmade ponds located near a coal plant. The metals eventually sink to the bottom of the pond and slowly accumulate.

Environmental groups had pressured the utilities to move the ash for more than two years, arguing that the current method of storage risks leaks and ecological disaster if the dams holding back the ponds were to ever fail. The groups began targeting the ponds after a dike burst at a Tennessee power plant in 2008, covering more than 300 acres with the toxic sludge. Six years later, ash seeped through a broken pipe and out to a river at a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina this past February.

“South Carolina is the first state in the Southeast that has moved this far along in protecting our rivers and communities from coal ash pollution,” Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) senior attorney Frank Holleman told South Carolina Radio Network. He credited efforts by the “Riverkeeper”-aligned  conservation groups and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

SELC has been the primary organization leading the effort against coal ash ponds, instead calling on utilities to place the coal ash in “dry storage,” or landfills that are lined to keep the metals from getting into groundwater. The first utility the group sued in 2012 — South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) — reached a settlement that would remove 240,000 tons of ash from a coal plant that sits along the Wateree River near Eastover.

Holleman said the group was not planning to eradicate the ponds at the time — just to target those sites it viewed as an environmental hazard.

“As we did the research, went through the documents and actually examined the rivers and wetlands around the different locations, what we discovered is every site had similar problems,” Holleman said.

The next year, a similar lawsuit led state-owned utility Santee Cooper’s to voluntarily remove 1.3 million tons from a shuttered plant in Conway that borders the Waccamaw River. Santee Cooper also pledged similar cleanups at its other coal facilities around the state. Both SCE&G and the state-owned utility plan to move the waste into dry storage, as well as recycle some of the material for use in concrete (ash can be used as a substitute for Portland cement).

Duke Energy had been the last remaining utility in South Carolina that was still planning to keep its ash ponds indefinitely. That changed with last week’s agreement to remove ash from the Lee Steam Station in Williamston.

“The… basins are not ideal long-term locations to house the ash because of the work that would be needed to upgrade those areas for future storage,” Duke senior vice president for ash strategy John Elnitsky said in a statement.

There are 22 coal ash ponds in South Carolina at 14 different sites. The utilities estimate it will take up to 10 years to remove all of the material. There are other ash ponds around the state that are not operated by utilities and thus are not affected by the lawsuits, such as a former coal reactor at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken.