At what price gold? About $1,400 per ounce is one answer. But what about the long-term costs of allowing a multinational miner to continue to strip the precious metal from the sandhills near Kershaw? The price could be too high for South Carolinians and the environment.
OceanaGold Corp., which bought the historic Haile mine in 2015, wants to expand its strip-mining operation by about 900 acres and also dig a tunnel to extract some 150,000 ounces of gold per year through 2031. That would add about 250 local jobs to the roughly 400-employee operation, but most of the new jobs would be in lower-paying support operations such as maintenance and truck driving.
Getting the shiny stuff out of the ground is dirty business. Cyanide is used to separate the gold from pulverized sulfur-rich ore, which continues to leach sulfuric acid in waste areas called tailings ponds and releases toxic metals such as arsenic. And that deadly mix of pollution can migrate into surface and groundwater supplies.
At the old Brewer gold mine near Jefferson, a dam on a tailings pond broke during a downpour in 1990, releasing 10 million gallons of cyanide-laced water, killing fish in Little Fork Creek and the Lynches River for more than 40 miles downstream. It was named a Superfund cleanup site in 2005. Another old goldmine near McCormick, which operated only about four years in the early 1990s, was named a Superfund site in 2009 after the 10-acre strip pit filled with rainwater and became toxic.
Thanks to pressure from the Sierra Club, Haile operator OceanaGold in 2015 added $5 million to a cleanup fund, boosting the value of its cleanup bond to $65 million. The tailings pond would also be lined to help keep the pollution from spreading after mining is expected to end in 2031.
OceanaGold would preserve property elsewhere to offset damage to about 90 acres of wetlands associated with the expansion. In 2014, federal regulators gave the Melbourne, Australia-based mining company permission to fill or alter up to 1,100 acres of wetlands.
But after the initial cleanup, there’s no binding plan for managing the site, which is troubling. The tailings can continue to leach acids and toxic metals for decades, and responsibility for managing the pollution would likely fall to taxpayers, Sierra Club attorney Bob Guild said. The proposed expansion would roughly triple the volume of waste, he said, and OceanaGold should at least commit to a “commensurate level of financial responsibility.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for compiling an environmental impact report, which is expected to take several months, then the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control would issue the necessary permits.
Obviously, OceanaGold sees a profit in the proposed expansion. But the Army Corps and DHEC must carefully weigh the long-term risk against the value of about 250 relatively short-lived jobs.
The bulk of the profits will move on with the company, but the tailings pond, which would increase from 524 acres to 632 acres, will remain toxic indefinitely. And there’s no guarantee $65 million would cover the long-term costs of remediating the pollution at what is already the largest gold mine of its kind in the eastern United States.
The expansion may be worth it to OceanaGold, but not to South Carolinians, who could find themselves stuck with another Superfund site.