South Carolina regulators have fined a large gold mine $100,000 for breaking environmental rules, marking the third time in the past year the operation north of Camden has run into trouble with the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The fine is the largest involving the Haile Gold Mine, and in this case, DHEC said the company released excessive amounts of mercury, failed to submit pollution test results as required, provided misleading statements and failed to get a DHEC permit.
An agency spokeswoman said DHEC levied the $100,000 fine -- the heftiest air pollution penalty against any South Carolina company in at least a year -- because of the period of time the gold mine did not follow the rules. The violations were noted in 2018 and 2019.
“DHEC is always concerned when any industry doesn’t operate in compliance with our state regulations that exist for protecting human health and the environment,’’ spokeswoman Laura Renwick said in an email Thursday.
With the most recent enforcement action, the Haile Gold Mine and a contract laboratory have been fined nearly $128,000 for violating environmental rules in recent months.
In September, DHEC announced it had fined the Haile mine $11,200 for multiple violations, including the release of thallium, a metal used to make rat poison. In December, the agency said it had fined the Haile Gold Mine minerals laboratory, which is across the street from the mine and run by a third-party operator, $16,000 for 19 environmental violations. Those violations included a failure to properly manage hazardous material.
The Haile Gold Mine, owned by the Australian-company OceanaGold, is an open-pit digging operation and one of the largest gold mines in the eastern United States, comparable in scale to some western U.S. mines..
Located in rural Lancaster County, the mine is on about 4,500 acres and features multiple pits, some of which are expected to approach 1,000 feet deep. OceanaGold has in recent months sought to expand the Haile mine.
Before mining began near the town of Kershaw more than four years ago, Haile officials assured South Carolina residents they would run a state-of-the-art operation that would adhere to environmental standards.
Many Lancaster County residents embraced the mine because of the hundreds of jobs it would bring to Kershaw, a poor town of about 2,000 people. The Haile mine, just up the road from Kershaw, is located at the site of a historic mining operation that closed.
Following months of public meetings, DHEC approved a permit in October 2013 to develop the mine and an ore processing plant.
Now, the latest fine has sparked questions about OceanaGold’s commitment to following rules that protect the environment.
Former state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, who questioned the mine’s potential environmental impact before it opened, said the violations involving the Haile mine are disturbing.
“To have something like this happen, I’m sure is terribly embarrassing and concerning to them, yet it has happened three times,’’ the one-time Lancaster County representative said. “It makes me worry that there is a breakdown in the operations that they are unable to prevent.’’
The Haile mine issued a statement Thursday, saying it has hired an independent, third-party expert to audit the mine’s environmental performance. The company is doing “all we can to operate safely while complying with environmental regulations.’’
“We never want to be out of compliance,’’ the statement said.
One of the biggest issues outlined by DHEC in its most recent enforcement case centers on how the Haile mine has dealt with mercury, a toxic metal with an array of health impacts on people and wildlife.
According to a DHEC enforcement order released Thursday, the Haile Gold Mine exceeded safe limits multiple times for mercury pollution in the air, then failed to tell the agency as required.
The order said Haile sent in late reports of elevated mercury at least four different times, indicating that DHEC didn’t know about excess mercury, in some cases, for weeks. The elevated mercury levels were found while testing air pollution control equipment in 2018 and 2019, the order says.
Haile officials told DHEC that they ran into trouble because “mercury in the mine was greater than previously estimated,’’ the enforcement order said.
Mercury is sometimes found in the earth in areas where gold mining occurs. When gold is excavated and heated during processing, mercury can be released into the air. As a result, air pollution regulations have been developed in recent years for gold mining.
“Mercury air pollution is not an issue at all gold mines, but certainly is an issue at some -- in Nevada, Alaska and now apparently in South Carolina,’’ said Bonnie Gestring, who tracks gold mining for the environmental group Earthworks. “It’s something that warrants strict scrutiny. Mercury is such highly toxic pollution. It is really impossible to remediate.’’
Exposure to mercury can cause tremors, headaches, nerve damage, a loss of peripheral vision and muscle weakness, depending on the amount of exposure and the form of mercury, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Babies are particularly vulnerable. Mercury in high doses has caused tumors in laboratory animals, the EPA says.
In South Carolina, as in other southern states, some species of fish in the coastal plain have accumulated so much mercury through the years that it’s considered unsafe to eat more than small amounts. The mercury pollution likely came from coal-burning power plants. The pollution fell into the water and was slowly taken in by fish, experts have said.
Records show some of the mercury pollution from the gold mine was more than three times the legally allowed limit of .14 pounds of mercury per ton of concentrate.
But the Haile mine’s statement said mercury did not affect the health of Haile employees or hurt the environment. The statement characterized the mercury amounts as “extremely low.’’
The mine has successfully cut the mercury levels to .05 pounds per ton of concentrate, the minerals company said. Haile says it has installed a $1 million mercury pollution control system.
DHEC’s Renwick also said the agency does not believe the mercury pollution hurt the environment or anyone living in the area because the concentrations were low and homes weren’t close enough to be affected.
The Haile Gold Mine has made recent improvements and is now complying with the law, the department said. State officials said Haile paid the fine last month.
Haile officials say they found the mercury problems, blaming the delay in providing mercury test results to DHEC on efforts to verify their findings. The company was using a “third party” to evaluate the mercury results, which took more time than expected, according to Haile’s statement Thursday.
In addition to mercury-related violations, DHEC’s enforcement action said the Haile Gold Mine told the state it did not have problems with an air pollution control device, even though the mine had not done enough work to know if there were problems.
The mine also failed to establish limits on pressure and flow in an air pollution control device. The pressure and flow limits are important to determine if an air pollution control device is working properly, DHEC spokeswoman Renwick said.
Haile officials also failed to submit accurate reports on time to DHEC and they did not get a construction permit before installing equipment to control air pollution discharges, records show.
Despite assurances from DHEC and OceanaGold, Powers Norrell said she worries about the long-term impacts of mining. Two abandoned gold mines in South Carolina are so contaminated they are today federal Superfund cleanup sites.
The Haile Gold Mine reopened at the site of a historic gold-digging operation after locating gold that miners in the past had been unable to reach affordably. The Lancaster County mine has found potentially billions of dollars in gold.
Sierra Club member Susan Corbett said people should not take the mine’s environmental troubles lightly — particularly residents of Kershaw.
The Lancaster County town, located north of Camden between Columbia and Charlotte, is about three miles from the mine.
“I feel really bad that the people of that community, who trusted that the gold mine would be operated and run and monitored safely, are now suffering — or will suffer — the long term impacts of heavy metals like mercury in their immediate environment,’’ said Corbett, whose group persuaded the state to force the mine to set aside more money for an environmental cleanup. “They were fooled.’’