South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

A determined group
October 10th, 2019

By Erin Hardwick Pate, North Coast Office Director Coastal Conservation League, Kingstree News

Dear Editor,

For residents of Earle, life was good, quiet and predictable. They couldn’t imagine their lives would become intertwined with a destructive mine that threatened to tear apart everything they hold dear. Then early in 2017, RDA, LLC, a North Carolina company, bought 1,000 acres in the center of the community and later revealed plans to mine limestone on the property for the next for 20 years.

A determined group of residents, with support from the larger community and environmental organizations, decided to fight to prevent the negative impacts from mining that other communities have experienced including sinkholes, wells drying up, noise and air and water pollution. In the end, the mine will open, but the operators will use safer mining practices. The residents also inspired Williamsburg County to pass an ordinance that will increase scrutiny and environmental protections for future mining operations.

RDA at first planned to use a process called dry mining. The company had planned to dig pits up to 65-feet-deep and then pump out millions of gallons of groundwater each day to expose the limestone and discharge it into Murray Swamp. The swamp flows into the Black River, a state-designated Scenic River and one of the most pristine waterways in our state. The impact of the mining discharge on water quality, fish, and other marine life could have been devastating.

Dry mining is known to drain local wetlands and swamps, cause sinkholes and dry residential wells. We’ve seen these devastating effects in other South Carolina communities like Jamestown, Cross, and Suttons.

It was clear the mine could negatively impact the quality of life of the residents in Earle with loud blasting that would shake homes adjacent to the site. Hundreds of heavy trucks entering and leaving the mine site via Seaboard Road, a small secondary road, added concerns about safety and noise.

The Coastal Conservation League and other organizations and agencies, including the state Department of Natural Resources, South Carolina Wildlife Federation, Winyah Rivers Alliance and South Carolina Environmental Law Project, raised concerns with regulators about the proposed mine.

The residents of Earle got organized, voiced their concerns, and pressed local elected officials to stand up for their community. Billy Broueton and the late Bruce Wheeler led the charge with communication support from Christi Moore. Their determination and commitment to preserving the community never wavered.

This resolve was on full display at the Stop the Mine Rally on July 28, 2018 at Andrews High School. The rally took place before the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s public hearing on the mine. Hundreds of residents demonstrated their opposition t0 the mine, wearing red and raising homemade protest signs. During the hearing, dozens stood at the microphone to share personal and emotional stories, pleading for the future of their community.

On March 25, 2019, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a permit to allow RDA to move forward with its plans for dry mining. This was alarming because many see the state’s regulations as weak and think they don’t adequately control the harmful effects of mining.

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there. RDA, in a settlement with the Coastal Conservation League and our partners, agreed to do more to protect the community than what the state required in its permit. The company now plans to use a wet mining process, which extracts limestone from water left in the pit. Wet mining means less groundwater drawdown, less discharge from the mining site into Murray Swamp, and it reduces the chance of sinkholes on adjacent properties.

RDA also agreed to limit the time it would blast to weekdays, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. And the company is required to meet at least once a year with a committee of community representatives to discuss operations, share results of water quality monitoring, and address concerns of the community.

To its credit, Williamsburg County Council worked tirelessly for the Earle community from the beginning with an August 7, 2017, unanimous vote to oppose the mine. And the county went further, adopting ordinances on August 20, 2019, that require a county permit for future mines, putting limitations on groundwater extraction, and giving the county authority over mining activities within its borders. This was a monumental and historic action. County Council’s leadership has been extraordinary with Council members Joe Miller and Sam Floyd, and County Supervisor Tiffany Wright leading the charge. Thank you!

It’s been said that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, they can. The dogged determination of the Earle community resulted in lasting and positive change that will protect communities and the environment in Williamsburg County for generations to come.

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