Big gold mine fined again, this time for toxic discharge violations near SC town

A big South Carolina gold mine with a recent history of environmental violations has been fined again for breaking the rules, this time over discharges of two toxic materials near the small town of Kershaw in rural Lancaster County.

The Haile Gold Mine, owned by the international corporation OceanaGold, recently paid a $12,600 penalty after the state’s environmental agency cited the company for failing to meet discharge limits on cyanide and cadmium. The company also failed limits on toxicity, a measure of how threatening wastewater discharges are to aquatic life.

In less than 18 months, state regulators have issued four different fines involving gold operations at Kershaw. Three of the fines were against Haile and one was against a contract laboratory that OceanaGold lists on its website as “a valuable asset for Haile.’’’

All told, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control fines amount to nearly $140,000 since July 2020.

The most recent case involves wastewater discharges that exceeded legal limits for cadmium during three consecutive months in the winter and spring of 2020 and for cyanide discharges that exceeded limits for two consecutive months.

OceanaGold says the problems, which the company detected and reported, have been resolved.

Cyanide is a chemical used by gold mines to separate the precious metal from rock, but it also can sicken or kill people and wildlife exposed to it. In addition to its use in mining, some forms of cyanide have been used as a poison in death row gas chambers.

Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal also associated with gold mines. If ingested in sufficient amounts, it can cause nausea and vomiting, as well as liver and kidney damage, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The recent violations are notable because, while the mine has state permission to discharge treated wastewater to a creek, the discharges must be at levels that are not considered dangerous to the environment.

One previous fine against Haile, an $11,200 levy, also was for releasing a toxic pollutant — thallium — above permitted water discharge limits and for failing to provide certified mercury results to state regulators.

The biggest penalty against Haile was a $100,000 fine for a series of air pollution violations. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the company released excessive mercury, provided misleading statements and didn’t submit pollution test results, among other things.

Another fine resulted from hazardous waste violations at the Kershaw Mineral Lab, a facility across the street from the mine that OceanaGold says was built to assess gold samples.

In seeking permits to reopen the relatively small historic Haile mine about a decade ago, then-owner Romarco Minerals pledged to operate a state-of-the art gold mine, unlike other operations that have fouled the environment across the country.

After the permits had been secured, OceanaGold , an Australian-headquartered corporation, acquired Romarco in 2015 and offered similar assurances. The company began full-scale operation in 2017 at the Kershaw site.

The mine now is seeking state and federal permission to expand from 4,552 acres to 5,384 acres — and critics of the mine are leery in light of the company’s record of following environmental laws. Questions also surfaced about why the fine was not higher.

“The pattern of non-compliance issues at the Haile Gold Mine is troubling,’’ said Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He said state and federal agencies “should not allow the company to move forward with an expansion until the company can demonstrate to the agencies and the public that it can and will comply with its permits.”

About 86 acres of wetlands and 2 miles of creeks would be filled, drained or degraded by the proposed expansion, and a tailings waste pond dam would be enlarged. Some neighbors are concerned about expansion of the waste pond dam above their family land. The company still needs at least four permits to expand, as well as completion of a final environmental study on the site, according to DHEC.

Gold mines have a checkered legacy of environmental problems across the country. In South Carolina, two closed gold mines are today federal Superfund sites, meaning taxpayers are spending money to stabilize and clean up pollution. A 2014 series of stories in The State revealed the public had spent $27.4 million cleaning up the mines in McCormick and Chesterfield counties.

Haile, in a statement Tuesday. said it has made substantial efforts to improve since opening the mine.

The statement from David Londono, executive general manager for OceanaGold/Haile Gold Mine, said the company has discovered and self-reported “every exceedance’’ to state regulators, noting that no pollution left the property “for this or any other exceedance at the site.’’

Londono’s statement said a “cleaning solution irregularity and a water plumbing modification’’ triggered failed wastewater test samples. Recent test results are in compliance, his statement said.

“We self-reported the cyanide and cadmium results to DHEC in the spring of 2020,’’ the statement said. “These were isolated test results, which did not result in any discharges off site. Haile’s environmental monitoring system is in place to help identify and quickly rectify anything that could potentially cause harm to the environment. Identification of the exceedances is demonstration that the system is working the way it should. We’ve enhanced our operations and subsequent tests results regarding cyanide and cadmium are in compliance.’’

DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said the recent discharge violations at Haile did not appear to have hurt the environment, but the agency “has concerns any time a permitted entity exceeds its permit limits.’’

The agency hopes recent personnel changes will help, she said.

“There is newly hired management and environmental staff at Haile, and we expect this new leadership is committed to ensuring the facility operates in compliance with its applicable permits, as these permits establish operations that are protective of human health and the environment,’’ Renwick’s email said.

Renwick’s email did not go into detail about the management changes, but she said Tuesday the new staffers had been “extremely cooperative.’’

The Haile Gold Mine is located just a few miles outside the town of Kershaw, a community of about 2,000 residents that has suffered from high unemployment rates since a big textile mill closed some 25 years ago.

While some people in the area have criticized the mine for the impact on the environment, many people have embraced Haile’s reopening as a way to revitalize the town. The mine says it employs 570 people, 84 percent of which are local residents.. An expansion could bring several hundred more jobs.

Reopening the Haile Gold Mine has had an $87 million annual economic impact on Lancaster County, according to a 2018 study by the University of South Carolina’s business school cited by OceanaGold.

The existing operation is occurring at a site that has a history of gold-mining dating to the 1800s. But today’s mine is larger than anything that was there before.

It’s a massive open pit gold-digging operation that, unlike the forested South Carolina landscape, is devoid of vegetation and full of deep holes, some hundreds of feet into the earth. The Haile mine rivals in size mines in the metals-rich western United States. High gold prices, recently about $1,800 per ounce, make it economical to go after gold that had not been previously mined.

Bob Guild, a Sierra Club lawyer who fought successfully in 2015 to increase a cleanup bond after the mine sought initial permits, said the repeated environmental violations raise concerns about what will happen when the Haile site closes.

Many gold mines must monitor and contain toxic discharges for years after closure. The Haile mine is expected to close in the 2030s after extracting billions of dollars in gold from Lancaster County.

“If they are not doing great when they are making money, should we not fairly assume they will do worse when they don’t have a financial incentive?’’ Guild asked.

Guild said a $12,600 fine against a company that stands to make billions of dollars “is a joke.’’ The state Pollution Control Act allows for a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day of violation.