Proposed expansion of mine near Horry Co. nature preserve throws up more red flags than not

·7 min read

No reticence rang out during a hearing for a proposal to expand a mine near the revered Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

For nearly two hours Thursday evening, Edge Road mine was on the hot seat. The proposal by Soilutions is vying to expand the nearly 5-acre mine to almost five times the size with depths to 50 feet. They plan to mine sand and clay on the 33-acre rural plot in Conway, 24 of those acres would be used for mining.

Still in the permitting stages, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has not given Soilutions a green light to expand the mine. And the majority of the Horry County natives, biologists, environmentalists, lawyers and business owners who recited or gave extemporaneous testimonies Thursday want to keep it that way.

Of the nearly 100 people who attended the meeting, some attending virtually and others in-person at the Bryan Floyd Community Center, more than 70% of the 25 speakers gave vehement no’s to the project.

Dust and noise already a problem

Most residents with property near the Edge Road mine will tell you it’s already disrupted life. An expansion would be disastrous, they say.

Children can’t play outside, because industrial trucks kick up plumes of dust. Swirling sediments coat fruit trees and crops. The large trucks send rumbling noises into their homes that were never there before and sometimes the truck drivers navigate through their property along the narrow Edge Road.

“If this was in your backyard, I’m sure you wouldn’t be part of it. You wouldn’t let your kids breathe in the dust” said Jeff Bowen, who lives near the mine.

Residents are also concerned groundwater quality and supply, which could impede the retrieval of safe well water, would be affected by a larger mine. DHEC assured, during its Thursday presentation, if groundwater availability was impacted by the mine’s expansion, the operator would pay to fix the issue and supply bottled water.

The state agency urged homeowners to fill out a well survey information form so it can better gauge the potential impact.

Stan Barnett, an environmental lawyer representing a resident who lives near the mine, said Soilutions proposal is a “classic approach” to people coming into a small, rural community who want to “make a little bit of money.”

Local brothers at the helm

For the two brothers who own Soilutions, one of which owns property edging the proposed 24-acre sand and clay mine, they’re intimately familiar with the area and said they’re eager to interact with other locals on their proposal.

In South Carolina, mining is a major industry, and like Horry County, it’s growing. The county has the highest concentration of minds in the state, according to previous reporting by The Sun News. Sand, dirt and clay can be used for construction projects to make concrete and lift homes and roads out of flood zones.

While DHEC monitors mines’ environmental impacts, it leaves decisions of where they are built to local governments, previous reporting by The Sun News said. Horry County did away with nearly all local regulations, including zoning regulations, in late 2020. Since then, many mines have been dug and some have led to dry wells.

Jessica King, who works with Soilutions and represented the business Thursday, said the venture is one the brothers have taken into great consideration – including that of the habitat and community.

“This is not a big business coming in and putting a mine,” she said.

King called the expansion a “tiny piece of property” compared to other mines operating in South Carolina. It’s one that she said Soilutions had been the first to note the importance of preserving the red-cockaded woodpecker – an endangered bird – from the mine expansion.

“Soilutions is trying to do the right thing and address concerns so there are no negative impacts,” King said.

The business’ proposal boasts a 50-foot buffer that they say would protect the preserve and its diverse ecology and nearby wetlands. According to a DHEC presentation, Soilutions would install silt fencing and perform segmented mining – meaning excavation is done in phases to lessen groundwater and land impacts.

Once the mine is reclaimed, the proposal states a pond bordered by grassland would fill the site.

Habitat, wildfire risk and water quality at the forefront

Environmentalists say the expanded mine proposal isn’t quelling concerns.

They fear the expanding the mine would disturb Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve’s wildlife habitat, from the naturally growing Venus fly traps to black bears roaming the 10,000-acre preserve.

A larger, deeper mine could drain wetlands that people who perform controlled burns – to mitigate wildfires – so rely on.

“If the mine causes wetlands to drain unseasonably, not only will we increase wildfire risks … you also make it extremely difficult for burn managers on site, Forestry Commission DNR included, to conduct prescribed fires,” said Coastal Conservation League’s Trapper Fowler. “As a burn manager we expect wetlands to be wet after it rains. We can’t measure what’s happening from (external forces, like a larger sand mine).”

Fowler, who used to manage the preserve, added that wetlands and Carolina bays work as defenses during extreme weather events.

Potentially draining wetlands would also hurt wildlife’s current habitat, environmentalists posed. And increased noise from more industrial trucks would throw off mating and prey rituals of the preserve’s native animals.

But David Ellis said a 50-foot buffer is more than enough. The mine, he said, “is right next door,” not on the preserve and the rich soils are needed to go underneath roads to enhance structural integrity.

He’s fond of the reclamation plan, noting it would provide habitat for turtles, fish and ducks.

“It’s not part of Lew Ocean Bay,” Ellis, who joined the meeting via phone, said. “If it was part of it, none of us would be on this call.”

Cara Schildtknecht, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, said she is neither against mining nor development, but she believes there are better places for the sand mine. Schildtknecht’s concerns are around water quality. Water runoff would drain into the Boggy Swamp, which would eventually make its way to the Waccamaw.

It’s a myth that mines are good for flood mitigation, Schildtknecht said.

“I don’t know where the water is gonna go when the pumps are already full of water and we’ve removed the soils and the sand that are actually really great for absorbing this flood of waters,” she said. “So it’s not really a good flood mitigation plan to have mines reclaimed, it just doesn’t work.”

Permit in flux

Other speakers questioned the already rocky past of Soilutions current mine.

In October, one month after DHEC approved the initial general mining permit, the agency realized its General Coastal Zone Consistency certification had expired December 2018, according to previous reporting by The Sun News. The certification is a general permit DHEC has to renew with the federal government every few years.

DHEC told Soilutions is had to stop digging. While it did, it continued to remove material that had already been dug. In February, Soilutions submitted an application for a permit to expand its mine.

A final decision on the mine operating permit will not be made until DHEC reviews and considers all comments received through the end of the public comment period, which goes until July 15.

Additional information about the proposed mine or to submit written comments, people can submit comments online or call Kaylin Joye, project manager with DHEC Bureau of Land and Waste Management, at 803-898-1367.

Those with comments can also write in to Joye at 2600 Bull Street, Columbia, SC 29201 or send them to joyeke@dhec.sc.gov.