King Tract Mine
Awendaw is a small town in Charleston County with a total area of less than 10 square miles, but it is an ecological gem. Over 60 percent of the area consists of protected lands. It is in this area that King Tract mine—near Cape Romain, abutting the Francis Marion Forest and draining to the Intracoastal Waterway’s Shellfish Harvesting Waters—has operated a five-acre sand/clay mine and violated numerous environmental protection laws.
Under South Carolina law, the pH of effluent draining into waters with the Shellfish Harvesting Waters classification cannot be lower than 6.5. King Tract mine, specifically, has failed to submit monthly discharge monitoring reports for over a year and violated low pH wastewater discharge laws for almost six months.
Low pH acidification affects shellfish much like osteoporosis does humans; as the pH lowers, the acidity increases, and the shells become thinner, growth slows down and death rates rise. This is particularly important when a project could have a significantly adverse effect on publicly owned areas surrounding the mine, such as here, where the mine directly abuts the Francis Marion Forest and is draining to the Intracoastal Waterway’s Shellfish Harvesting Waters.
East of the Intracoastal, Cape Romain provides critical habitat for federally listed species such as the threatened piping plover, endangered wood stork, as well as Wilson’s plovers and American oystercatchers, which are both species of significant conservation concern. What’s more, Cape Romain’s Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment has made clear that protecting and enhancing the oyster bars and shell rakes along the Intracoastal Waterway is critical to preserving the feeding and nesting areas for both plovers and oystercatchers.
Despite our numerous comment letters objecting to the project, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) issued a new mine operating permit to King Tract, allowing it to expand its mine from five acres to an additional 59 acres. The application makes clear that this will not be all; and King Tract intends to mine the 928 acres of reserves on the tract in the future.
On behalf of the Coastal Conservation League, we asked the DHEC Board to review its staff’s decision. Our request outlined numerous complaints about the project; namely, that the mandatory language of the South Carolina Mining Act requires the denial of a permit when an operator’s previous mining operations indicate a substantial possibility that the project will result in acid water pollution and will have a significantly adverse effect on the publicly-owned areas surrounding the mine.
Nevertheless, DHEC denied our request for board review, and so on December 1, 2020 we filed an appeal of the agency’s decision to authorize this mining permit before the South Carolina Mining Council.
The South Carolina Mining Act contains mandatory language that requires DHEC to deny a permit when an operator’s previous mining operations indicate a substantial possibility that the project will result in acid water pollution and have a significantly adverse effect on the publicly owned areas surrounding the mine.
It is important to ensure that DHEC is following the law as additional mines are continuing to apply to operate in our coastal zones each year.
Oystercatchers, marbled godwits and dowitchers in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Ed Pivorun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons