April 1, 2015

Donation clears way for observation tower on SC’s highest mountain

Visitors to the top of Sassafras are currently greeted with a plaque marking the spot as the highest in SC

Visitors to the top of Sassafras are currently greeted with a plaque marking the spot as the highest in SC

State officials hope to start work this summer on an observation platform that will allow visitors to see the view from the top of South Carolina’s highest mountain.

The Sassafras Mountain project is now headed towards the construction phase after a $350,000 donation announced by Duke Energy on Friday. The state Department of Natural Resources has spent the past two years trying to raise the estimated $600,000 needed to build the 10-15 foot tall observation platform on the mountain’s summit.

While it technically straddles North Carolina, Sassafras Mountain is South Carolina’s highest elevation at 3,553 feet above sea level. The remote site in northern Pickens County came into the state’s possession about a decade ago.

When complete, the platform will offer a 360-degree panorama view for visitors. DNR wildlife supervisor Tom Swayngham said plans also call for a handicapped-accessible trail from a nearby parking lot to the platform. Eventually, officials hope to build restrooms and a picnic area as well.

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Project manager pleads guilty for botched asbestos removal at Charleston federal building

(Image: Wikipedia user ProfReader)

(Image: Wikipedia user ProfReader)

A man who led a project to clean asbestos out of a former federal building in Charleston admitted Friday that he misled inspectors who eventually found the toxic materials being swept down open drains.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Friday that 61-year-old Albert Dickson pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement under the Clean Water Act. Dickson was project manager of Gramercy Group, Inc.’s work to remove asbestos from the old L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building. The building was closed after damage from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, but has been undergoing renovations for a developer who hopes to convert the site into a hotel.

State Department of Health and Environmental Control inspectors said they found violations while responding to a 2011 complaint, including asbestos-laced insulation being swept down drains. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Dickson told the inspectors a filtration system was in place but investigators said they later learned the system was not installed until after the violations were reported.

The Charleston Post & Courier reports Dickson, who is from New Jersey, told the judge that he was misled by a subcontractor who he thought had a license to do the work. A environmental complaint was filed the day that subcontractor was fired, he said. But he admitted he misled state officials when he claimed the asbestos was being filtered out.

“I am particularly pleased that we held accountable an individual who valued this particular project above the health and safety of the citizens of Charleston,” U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles said in a statement. “We hope this guilty plea serves as a reminder that, where environmental violations are found, they will be punished.”

Dickson faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine when he is sentenced at a later date.

The Dewberry Capital Corporation plans to eventually renovate the old Rivers building into a four-star hotel with restaurants, bars, and meeting facilities.

Eleanor Kitzman appointed DHEC director

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Former state insurance chief Eleanor Kitzman was appointed Monday as director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), but the decision drew questions from senators who must confirm the nomination.

The DHEC board chose Kitzman, an ally of Republican Governor Haley. The governor appoints the board members. The eight-member board voted to appoint Kitzman after a private meeting.

Kitzman, 58, is a Texas native who was insurance commissioner in South Carolina from 2005-2007 under Governor Mark Sanford. She left the agency after a disagreement with Sanford and later ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010. She also served briefly as director of the state Budget and Control Board in South Carolina. In 2011, she was named insurance commissioner in Texas.

According to media reports in Texas, she was forced out in 2013 after Democratic senators complained that she did not stand up for consumers on insurance matters. Kitzman denied those allegations, but left the state to work with a private insurance business in New York.

The State newspaper reports some South Carolina Democrats question whether Kitzman has any experience in public health or environmental matters. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, serves on the committee that must confirm Kitzman. He told the paper that he would like to learn if Kitzman does have such experience before supporting her nomination.

Haley, who has said she wants to see DHEC be friendlier to businesses, said Kitzman is good pick for the DHEC position. She credited Kitzman with getting her involved in politics. On her second day in office, Haley succeeded in getting Kitzman approved as Budget and Control Board director. Kitzman remained in that post only a few months before being appointed to the Texas position.

DHEC is one of South Carolina’s largest agencies, with more than 3,500 employees. It has a broad mission, ranging from oversight of hospital expansions and tattoo parlors to issuing pollution permits for industry and regulating coastal development.

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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