A permit application to operate and expand a 5-acre mine in Conway to nearly five times the size, which has been a point of contention among many since the submission, was granted Tuesday.
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control OK’d the plan to mine sand and clay on the 33-acre rural plot, 22.6 of those acres would be used for mining, according to the approved plans. Sand, dirt and clay can be used for construction projects to make concrete, lift homes and roads out of flood zones.
Phase 1 will reach a mining depth of 30 feet, while Phase 2 will dig down 50 feet. DHEC’s review of the Edge Road Mine permit determined that the mine “can comply with the South Carolina Mining Act and Regulations.”
The proposal by Soilutions, a team of brothers, boasts a 50-foot buffer around Edge Road Mine that they say would protect the preserve and its diverse ecology and nearby wetlands. A minimum of a 100-foot buffer will be around parts of Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, excluding the southeastern area, the plan said.
Once the mine is reclaimed, the proposal states a pond bordered by grassland would fill the site.
During a June 2022 public comment session held at the Bryan Floyd Community Center, Jessica King, who works with Soilutions and represented the business, said the plan is one the Epps brothers had taken into great consideration – including that of the habitat and community.
King said that Soilutions had been the first to note the importance of preserving the red-cockaded woodpecker – an endangered bird – from the mine expansion.
“Soilutions is trying to do the right thing and address concerns so there are no negative impacts,” King said in June 2022.
Small business venture vs. environmental impact
Because Edge Road Mine is adjacent to the northern edge of the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, environmentalists have concerns that expanding the mine would disturb the preserve’s wildlife habitat, from the naturally growing Venus fly traps to black bears roaming the 10,000-acre preserve.
“The General Coastal Zone Consistency review is very clear on protecting our natural spaces,” said Coastal Conservation League’s Becky Ryon on Tuesday. “This is a very sensitive habitat and it is not suitable for sand mining.”
In June 2022, Coastal Conservation League’s Trapper Fowler said that wetlands and Carolina bays work as defenses during extreme weather events. Potentially draining wetlands could hurt current wildlife habitat and affect the ability to effectively perform controlled burns – a method to mitigate wildfires.
Other worries revolved around water quality. During the June 2022 meeting, Cara Schildtknecht, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, said she was concerned that water runoff would drain into the Boggy Swamp, which would eventually make its way to the Waccamaw.
Many residents who live nearby the rural Edge Road Mine shared during a public comment session that the plot has already created dust and noise issues, as rumbling industrial trucks kick up swirling sediments coating fruit trees and crops. There was so much dust, some said, that their children couldn’t safely play outside.
Residents were also concerned groundwater quality and supply, which could impede the retrieval of safe well water, would be affected by a larger mine.
The brothers who own Soilutions have said they’re intimately familiar with the area and that expanding the mine is a business venture. In South Carolina, mining is a major industry and, like Horry County, it’s growing. The county has the highest concentration of mines in the state, according to previous reporting by The Sun News.
From Soilutions’ perspective, they’ve previously said the expansion is relatively small compared to other mines operating in South Carolina. King added during the June meeting that it’s “not a big business coming in and putting in a mine.”
‘A long history’
Before there was a permit to operate on an expanded mine, the Conway plot encountered roadblocks.
“This is just a long history for this particular site,” Ryon said. “It’s just been so frustrating with the permitting, with excavation, and it should never have happened in the first place because it is on the border of our heritage preserve that’s meant to be protected.”
In October 2021, one month after DHEC approved the initial general mining permit, the agency realized its General Coastal Zone Consistency certification had expired December 2018, according to previous reporting by The Sun News.
The certification is a general permit DHEC has to renew with the federal government every few years.
DHEC told Soilutions it had to stop digging. While it did, it continued to remove material that had already been dug, previous reporting by The Sun News said.
“According to them, the staff person told them that they could move the dirt they already started excavating,” Ryon said Tuesday. “But they should not have started excavating, because we did request for board review within the first 15 days notice and the permit is not really valid until that time passes.”
King said in a Tuesday email that Soilutions was pleased to have received the individual mining permit after its general permit was revoked in October 2021 “due to a DHEC administrative error.”
The surrounding circumstances have caused an over year-and-a-half delay and “drained the company of significant resources,” King wrote.
Addressing environmental, health and wildlife concerns
Alongside its approval of the Edge Road Mine operating permit and expansion plan, DHEC published a separate document addressing concerns stemming from submitted comments.
The summary document included responses to expressed worries, addressing those around groundwater, surface water, wetlands, buffers, noise, air quality, endangered species and wildfires.
During the permitting process, Soilutions retained a wildlife biologist to conduct a site assessment for endangered or threatened species. It also had a groundwater specialist study the effects on the preserve and neighboring groundwater. Upon completing assessments of the mine’s impact, King said Soilutions representatives “feel confident there will be no negative effects on any species or surrounding groundwater, surface water or wetlands.”
“There are a lot of positive things about this project that will benefit the community and the surrounding nature preserve,” King wrote Tuesday.
She pointed to the buffer around the preserve and the reclamation plan once the mine closes that includes grassland and a 15 to 20-acre pond. King added that “wetlands on the property will be preserved and there will many acres of unmined land remaining.”
While the Coastal Conservation League said it appreciates the 50-foot buffer and the 100-foot a section of Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, it’s still not sufficient. Groundwater monitoring is also a good step, but Ryon said it’d be beneficial for DHEC to work with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to ensure there’s not dewatering of the wetlands.
“There are additional mitigation measures that they could take,” Ryon said. “But ideally we would not have this mine there, both for the natural resources and for the community concerns as well.”
Among the following outlined in DHEC’s summary response to public comments, it included:
The operator provided a Threatened and Endangered Species Habitat Assessment for the site and did not identify any federally endangered or threatened species, neither did SCDNR, SCDHEC or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
SCDNR did make recommendations regarding two state threatened species: the Southern hognose snake and the spotted turtle.
No significant groundwater or surface water impacts are anticipated at the site.
DHEC will conduct routine site inspections and compliance inspections as needed.
No elevated exposure health risk is anticipated from the mine beyond the property line.
The combination of undisturbed vegetated buffers, maintenance of equipment and distance from the operation will reduce the potential for sound heard off-site. There could be instances when the sound of equipment is heard, but the decibel levels should not be excessive.
This plan includes installing three wetland piezometers both upstream and downstream of mine operations that automatically monitor and collect data.
If an operator gets a complaint concerning adverse impacts to neighboring wells, the operator is to notify DHEC’s Manager of Mining and Reclamation within 24 hours.
According to DHEC, the agency’s decision is solidified 15 calendar days after notice of the decision has been mailed to the applicant, permittee, licensee and affected people who have requested in writing to be notified.
Affected parties can request a final review of this permit decision. The request must be in written form to the Clerk of the DHEC Board. The process of requesting a review can be found at www.scdhec.gov/BoardReview.