GUEST COLUMN: Community health comes before business interests
December 15th, 2019
By Joe Miller, SC Now
I’m serving my first term representing the third district of Williamsburg County. Our county is largely rural, dotted with family farms and churches.
Approximately 30,000 people live in Williamsburg County. Even fewer live in a small unincorporated part of the county called Earle.
I want to tell you how the Earle community fought and nearly won a fight against an out-of-state mining company.
In 2016, RDA LLC began shopping for rural land in Williamsburg County near Murray Swamp. Unfamiliar faces knocked on doors in Earle and met with local elected officials claiming they were keen on starting up a sod farm. After six months or more of campaigning, RDA bought up approximately 1,000 acres of farmland and surprised us all by applying for state and federal permits to run a dry limestone mine.
Dry mining is a destructive practice that involves digging deep pits, pumping out the groundwater, then discharging the water offsite. Dry mines threaten surrounding air and water quality and create around-the-clock noise as machines hammer into the earth. In conversations with my constituents, they spoke about the fears of losing land that had been passed down through multiple generations. They feared declining property values and personal health. They worried about their aging parents and young children. They worried about the future of our community — and whether anyone would choose to stay.
Even in South Carolina, dry mines have a long track record of wreaking havoc on places like Earle. In the late 1980s, a mine in Berkeley County caused dangerous sinkholes, including one that swallowed a historic church cemetery. Residential wells dried up, and the foundations of homes near the mine shifted and cracked.
To dig its pit, representatives from RDA asked state officials for permission to draw out millions of gallons of water from the ground every day — and then release that water back into Murray Swamp, a slow-moving, meandering blackwater swamp that eventually flows into the Black River. The Black River is considered one of the state’s most pristine waterways and is home to the federally endangered Atlantic sturgeon.
The people of Earle rallied against the mine. Together, we organized a rally ahead of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s public hearing. Neighbors started a Facebook page and spread the latest information about RDA’s plans and progress. Leading environmental groups like the Coastal Conservation League and South Carolina Environmental Law Project joined the state’s Department of Natural Resources to oppose the project. Nevertheless, DHEC officials granted mining, air and water permits.
They granted the permits despite significant public opposition and evidence that suggests dry mining is harmful to communities and the environment. Boxes and boxes of documentation, research and analysis on the Jamestown debacle are in storage at DHEC’s Columbia headquarters. Even still, agency approved a permit for dry mining.
To counteract the state’s weak rules on mining, I worked with my fellow council members of Williamsburg County to take matters into our own hands. We worked to reach an agreement with RDA to switch from dry to wet mining — a process that can lessen the stress on fragile natural resources like groundwater. The company also agreed to limit activity to certain hours of the day and increase accountability with heightened monitoring and community reporting.
Then we went a step further. Last month, our county council approved our own mining and groundwater withdrawal regulations, which go further than the state’s in protecting our residents and rural resources. Though this new ordinance can’t necessarily stop RDA, it will block reckless proposals to mine here in the future.
Mining is rapidly expanding across the state. In the past two years, 16 mines in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester alone have requested permits.
I urge you to hear our lesson from Williamsburg and Earle. Take heed. When state agencies do not put the health of communities and our natural resources first before business interests, we must step up.
Jonathan “Joe” Miller is a county councilman who represents the third district of Williamsburg County.