Massive Proposed Limestone Mine Threatening Local Community in Williamsburg County
Posted: July 3, 2018
In the summer of 2017, after acquiring nearly 1,000 acres of largely undeveloped land in the rural Earles community just outside the Town of Andrews in Williamsburg County, a North Carolina man applied for permits to construct a limestone mining and processing facility, as opposed to a sod farm as many residents and landowners in the area had been led to believe.
On behalf of the Coastal Conservation League, the Winyah Rivers Foundation, and the SC Wildlife Federation, we have been detailing the numerous significant concerns with this project to state and federal agencies, including loss of wetland resources; water quality and quantity problems; the potential for sinkholes; and adverse impacts to plants and wildlife and their habitat, including rare, threatened and endangered species.
The site of the proposed mine contains 92.8 acres of jurisdictional wetlands plus another 25.47 acres of onsite non-jurisdictional wetlands, as well as a portion of Murray Swamp, which is a tributary that flows into the state-designated scenic Black River. The proposed mining activities would involve “dewatering” or the pumping out and lowering groundwater levels by 50 feet, using explosives to blast apart the limestone, conveying the limestone deposits directly over Murray Swamp to a processing plant, discharging up to 7.5 million gallons of water per day into the Murray Swamp system, and the addition of approximately 150 trucks per day onto roads that are already in desperate need of repair.
As it naturally occurs, limestone dissolves and forms an extensive matrix of cave systems underground. When groundwater is repeatedly pumped and water levels lowered, the remaining limestone skeleton that has yet to dissolve will be under a tremendous increase in overburden pressure and prone to collapse (i.e., form a sinkhole). Here in particular, the geology of the area bears similarities to Georgetown, which suffered from catastrophic sinkholes that were directly connected to the drawing down of groundwater levels. Indeed, there have been extensive studies and reports dating back to the early 1980s linking the dewatering process of existing mines located in South Carolina’s coastal plain to the formation of sinkholes as well as the degradation and depletion of water resources.
Surface and sub-surface disturbances and, especially, the drawing down of groundwater levels are going to impact residents in the Earle community and surrounding area, who rely on wells to meet their daily water needs. The proposed mining and processing activity is likely to adversely impact the residents of the Earle community and surrounding area in terms of significant air and noise pollution, a tremendous increase in heavy truck traffic, and additional physical and emotional disturbances to their well-being and quality of life. Indeed, the Town of Andrews is preparing to pass a resolution in opposition of the proposed mining activity due to the reasonably foreseeable adverse effects.
Despite extensive wetlands on the proposed mine site, the Corps of Engineers decided to authorize the project under Nationwide Permit (NWP) 44 based on the applicant’s claim that the massive mining and processing activity will only result in 0.394 acres of wetland impacts. We have urged the Corps to reconsider this decision given the purpose of the NWP program is to afford a limited and expedited review and approval process but only for those projects with minimal adverse environmental impacts. We further urged the Corps to reconsider due to incomplete and inaccurate information in the application, including the failure to identify and consider impacts to the federally-endangered Atlantic sturgeon and the Black River as part of its federally-designated critical habitat. We are continuing to evaluate and assess our legal strategies in this regarding, including the potential for an action in federal court.
On June 20, 2018, DHEC released draft permits for the proposed mining project (read more here). We attended the public hearing on July 26, speaking to the significant risks posed by this massive mining and processing operation. We also continued to work with our conservation partners to empower the local community, which has mobilized in opposition of this destructive project that threatens their quality of life and environment.
On September 17, 2018—after a year of calling on state and federal agencies to comply with environmental laws and conduct a thorough and exhaustive review of all impacts associated with a proposed limestone mining and processing facility—we filed official notice to the Corps of our intent to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act if those violations are not corrected. You can read here the full letter and find below more background information.
On March 25, 2019, DHEC issued mine operating and air quality permits for the project. The next day, DHEC issued stormwater permit coverage. SCELP is considering its next options.
On August 9, 2019, a settlement agreement was reached with the mining company that revises their original plans to better protect the community and natural resources.
The company agreed to a number of changes, including more extensive monitoring of mining impacts, clear procedures for reporting and addressing problems, limits on blasting and a community representative committee. The biggest concession was changing from a “dry mining” system to a “wet mining” system.
Wet mining significantly reduces the amount of groundwater pumped from the site, resulting in less discharge from the mining site into Murray Swamp, and reduced risk of sinkholes, loss of wetlands, well contamination and other water-related issues on the mine property and adjacent properties.
Download available 60-day Notice_Press Release
Download available Third Comment Letter 4.19.18
Download available Second Comment Letter 1.8.18
Download available Preliminary Comment Letter 11.17.17
Download available South Strand News 5.23.18