Berkeley dirt mines digging up controversy

Barbara and George Ruth of Green Bay are among the residents trying to fight a proposed dirt mine just down the road, so they planted this sign in their yard.

GREEN BAY -- Drivers don't see much to indicate they're approaching this rural community of 80 homes except for a 20 mph dip in the speed limit along Halfway Creek Road.

But residents here fear Green Bay soon might be defined by another sight: a parade of dump trucks hauling dirt from a new 40-acre mine.

They say the mine not only would lead to more traffic, noise and dust but that it also would draw down the water table on surrounding properties, lowering private ponds and shallow wells used for irrigation.

They note it could jeopardize struggling species in the nearby Francis Marion National Forest, such as the Carolina gopher frog.

Those who have been pushing for five years to establish the mine say if they had not encountered any obstacles, the mine already would be opened and closed, with a 20-foot-deep lake being the only remaining sign that it was ever there.

They note they're following the letter of the law, while many other nearby ponds have been created in the area with little or no government oversight.

As the battle continues before state regulators and the courts, Berkeley County Council soon will consider new rules for other communities facing similar dirt and sand mines -- and similar concerns.

It's an issue that is expected to grow as builders seek suitable fill for new roads and other construction projects -- and as more people move out to the rural places where such dirt and sand can be found, said Berkeley Planning and Zoning Administrator Eric Greenway.

"Anytime you have more and more people move into an area, the things that were acceptable previously, now there's more of a chance that someone will take issue with that particular use," he said. "That is what is occurring here."

Digging deeper

Mary Ann and Bill Luttrell live in a house on the Isle of Palms but bought about 100 acres here several years ago to establish a horse farm, and they soon hope to live here full time.

They moved in just before the plans for the Green Bay mine permit first was sought. "We just don't feel like it's the right site," she said. "We feel it's siting a commercial activity in a rural residential area next to the Francis Marion Forest."

They have rallied neighbors to put signs in their yards and reach out to government officials to try to put a stop to it.

Michael Nick, who lives in the community, mainly fears the truck traffic that would pass right by the Bethel AME Church and the community's playground. "Safety is the first thing," he says. "The next is the noise level."

His neighbor, Abraham Jenkins, has a different concern. He fears the mine operation --which involves pumping groundwater out of the pit --would siphon off water from shallow wells and ponds nearby. "As far as I see, it's something we really don't need in this area," he said.

Big Demand for Dirt

South Carolina currently has permitted about 445 dirt and sand operations across the state -- up about 20 percent in five years, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control records. About 100 of them are in Berkeley, Charleston or Dorchester counties.

Meanwhile, the acreage has risen from 10,863 acres to 16,689 acres -- about four times the size of peninsular Charleston. Another 11,487 acres are permitted.

Property owner Edouard Des Francs, who is working through a partnership called Congaree-Carton, has sought to create one more such operation on a small tip of the Fairlawn Plantation property, part of which is under a conservation easement.

The plan is to create a lake on the property closest to Green Bay. He in turn hired contractor O.L. Thompson to remove and sell the dirt, which can be used to build roads and raise construction sites, such as the new Boeing plant being built in North Charleston.

O.L. Thompson has run such mines, also called borrow pits, in the Charleston area for much of its 60-year history, including a 125-acre pit off Clements Ferry Road. It also borrowed dirt to create the lake at Sewee Preserve, a conservation-oriented development outside Mount Pleasant.

Thompson and Congaree-Carton received a DHEC permit for a 40-acre mine in Green Bay, but residents appealed that decision to the state's Mining Council, which sent it back to DHEC. The permit is still pending there.

Meanwhile, residents also have mounted a legal fight against Berkeley County's decision to allow the mine in the Flex-1 zoning district. They lost the case before Circuit Court Judge Roger Young but have asked him to reconsider. That likely is the first step in a further appeal.

Perrin Dargan, an attorney for those seeking to open the mine, said both O.L. Thompson and the Des Francs family have met with community members to try to address their concerns and would be happy to do so again. "It seems to me the concerns have been somewhat of a moving target," he said. "We would love to sit down with them in a mediated setting and find some resolution to those issues."

One concern is how long the mine would remain open. That will be determined partly by demand for its dirt and partly by whether owners seek to renew or expand their permit. "Everyone understands for road construction in the Lowcountry and vertical construction, you have to have structural fill," Dargan said. "But no one wants it taken out from where they live."

A growing debate

Berkeley County was one of the state's fastest growing counties during the past 10 years.

That growth not only creates demand for new roads buildings -- and fill dirt from mines, but more residents also are moving out closer to possible mine sites.

County Council later this month will consider passing new zoning rules for those wanting to establish dirt or sand mines in Flex-1 areas -- which cover much of the rural part of the county. The rules were devised by a task force created in part because of the five-year-long Green Bay debate.

The policy would prevent mines from being located within 500 feet of homes and must be within half a mile of an arterial road. It also would give residents a chance to speak out, said Kate Parks of the Coastal Conservation League, which favors the change.

Parks said Berkeley's proposal would make its zoning for mines more comparable to what's found in Charleston and Dorchester counties.

"I know the counties don't like just following suit with what other counties have done," she said, "but this is the only piece of the (Des Francs') property that's in Berkeley County, and it's no coincidence that the mining is going on that site instead of in Charleston County."