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Editorial: SC needs mining, but we also need stricter regulations on where and how

active sand mine.jpg (copy)

Heavy machinery is seen through the gates at the entrance to a sand mine in Dorchester County in January. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A long-simmering mining controversy in Awendaw provides one of the best examples of why South Carolina needs to rethink and update its approach to regulating mining activity, which is an important piece of the state’s economy but must be allowed only in the right places. And as our state grows, finding those suitable sites is becoming more challenging, so once they’re found, the pressure is intense to make the mining operation ever larger.

That thinking was behind H.3892, which would prohibit mining operations any closer than two miles from “any park, preserve, green space, or other protected natural area owned or managed by the United States, the state, a county, a municipality ... or any other public entity.” The proposed change also would apply to new landfills and other solid waste facilities.

State Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, signed on as one of the cosponsors, partly because his district includes Awendaw, where owners of the Southern Mine-King Tract are looking to expand from its original 5-acre size to something much larger, despite its problematic past and proximity to the Francis Marion National Forest and the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge.

“The state is growing, business is moving here at record paces,” Mr. Hewitt said. “Why are they moving here? We’re a beautiful state, and we have beautiful natural resources and we want to protect those. I’m for mining. We need mining. There are good benefits. This is just about where it occurs.”

Unfortunately, the bill wasn’t set to receive its first hearing until April 27, and now even that looks unlikely, as House leaders focus on bills that stand a better chance of becoming law this year; while the session’s end is drawing near, we still urge lawmakers to move the bill forward as much as possible this year, so it will be poised for quick passage at the start of the 2022 session.

H.3892 represents a positive first step toward updating South Carolina’s rules on where mining operations are allowed; at the very least, the bill should trigger a larger conversation on balancing the benefits of mining with legitimate concerns over environmental degradation and our quality of life.

While more state regulation would be helpful, local governments have an important role to play, too, by ensuring that their zoning rules strike the right balance between all the competing interests. Often, these local rules, like the state’s, are old and too lax. For instance, Berkeley County’s zoning didn’t protect Huger residents from an expanded mining operation near their homes. Fortunately, the Coastal Conservation League helped them strike a deal this month with the mine operator to provide more open space, a recreational park and better communication.

There are about 100 active sand mines in the tri-county area, and the tensions between mining operations and residents in formerly rural but increasingly suburban areas are only going to grow. And the issue is not merely a coastal one; the lead lawmaker on H.3892 acted out of concern for a limestone mine near a state park in the Pee Dee.

The Southern Mine-King Tract mine has stirred particular controversy, partly because of its sensitive location in Awendaw and partly because of past discharge violations; despite testimony from two regional senators, the South Carolina Mining Council’s appellate committee voted last month to uphold a permit for its expansion. It’s unclear if the town of Awendaw can or will decide not to grant the necessary zoning appeal to let the mine expand. It shouldn’t.

Local controversies over mines probably will never fully fade away, but the more carefully state and local leaders plan for where these operations should be allowed, the more likely it is that everyone can avoid these unpleasant and costly fights.

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