Construction sand (copy)

Sand needed for construction spurs sand mine proposals in rural areas, as the development boom resumes in more populated areas. File/Staff

Every day 28 people move into the Charleston region and they need places to live and thoroughfares to get them there.

But oftentimes, when companies want to operate a pit to mine sand, clay or topsoil needed to build up a base in home and road construction, residents complain.

They pack county council and planning commission meetings to rail about potential noise, speeding trucks, decreased property values and problems with their well-water supplies if sand mines are allowed in their communities.

"If you destroy those things, you destroy a community," said Sybil Mitchell, who recently spoke out against a mine in Huger.

Those involved in the operations see it the other way. They say they are building communities.

“You don’t get industry and jobs without building buildings, and you don’t build buildings in this part of the country without dirt,” said former Berkeley County Supervisor Jim Rozier, now a consultant.

As growth stretches its arms into the outer reaches of the Lowcountry, master planned communities now butt up against rural land holds, some that have housed generations of families.

“They keep saying they’re building Charleston one truckload at a time,” Huger resident Joseph Forbes said in January at a Berkeley County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting during consideration of a sand mine on Charity Church Road.

“No, they are destroying Huger one truckload at a time,” he said.

The sand is used for residential and commercial development. One of the most-used natural resources, it is a main ingredient for concrete, roads and other construction materials.

Sand mines are considered local businesses because transporting dirt and sand long distances is not economically feasible, officials said. That means the mines need to be close to the construction sites.

"I understand that change is inevitable but has to be tempered in the way it impacts a community," Mitchell said. "We don’t want to be a dumping ground for everything and everybody. The things that any other community wants and desires, so do we."

South Carolina has about 500 active mine operating permits, including about 100 in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Most of the local sites mine sand or clay, while the Upstate has many sites for limestone, vermiculite and shale excavation.

Officials in Dorchester and Charleston counties said residents have also protested mines there.

"The main complaint that we receive is the noise," said Dorchester County spokeswoman Tiffany Norton. "Operations usually start early in the morning, 7 a.m., and the big equipment has backup alarms that beep."

The sounds fall within acceptable noise levels for zoning in the rural area, she said.

Dan Thompson, vice president of O.L. Thompson Construction, agreed that neighbors may hear the truck alarms, “but from an actual operations standpoint, I’d be surprised if very many people have ever actually heard us. As far as our equipment, running an excavator that’s typically down in a hole, I just don’t think the pits’ operations are a major noise problem.”

The S.C. Mining Act, which defines mining as the removal of ores from the ground for sale or for use in a business, was passed in 1974 to protect people and the environment and to ensure that mined lands are returned to a useful purpose.

General mine operating permits are limited to areas less than 5 acres and the removal of only sand, clay or topsoil with no processing of material. Individual Mine Operating Permits are for larger sites.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about them because they call them mines instead of dirt pits,” Rozier said. He said people often assume the operations involve explosives and cause environmental damage.

“People think when they are done, they just leave a big hole behind to grow up with weeds, but that’s not the case,” Rozier said.

Most pits have a life of four to six years.

Sometimes, the pits are filled with unusable dirt that is taken from the construction site. Rozier was recently involved in a permit application that would have turned the site into a floating solar farm afterward, he said.

Laddie Smith Jr., a partner in Murray Sand Co., said he often turns pits into ponds.

“I slope the sides and seed it to leave behind a nice pond that some people pay to have dug,” he said.

A good example is the pond at the Sewee Preserve, which is now surrounded by Birds of Prey and Ducks Unlimited easements, Thompson said.

“It’s about as pretty as a pond can be,” he said. “You wouldn’t realize it was a dirt pit by looking at it. It looks like it’s been there forever.”

Residents also complain the trucks hauling the first from the pits to construction sites — and often haul unusable dirt from the construction sites back to the pits — are noisy and drive too fast, officials said.

“It’s contrary to what you would think,” Thompson said. “If you hate dirt pits and the truck traffic associated with them, you’re better off having more of them because then you’re going to see the trucks and the traffic less.”

Chief Deputy Mike Cochran said the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office has had some calls complaining about trucks speeding in the Huger and Cainhoy area but has not found violators.

“Sometimes a large vehicle on a small road causes perception issues when it comes to interpreting speeds,” he said.

But Mitchell disagrees.

Her family picks up trash along about 17 miles of roadways in her community as part of Berkeley's Adopt-a-Highway program.

"There's no way in the world we can safely be out there," she said. "I shouldn’t have to die to clean my community."

Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.