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It's Full Steam Ahead At SC Gold Mine

Drill operator. Click photo to view more pictures.

A drill operator. Click photo to view more pictures. In the early 19th century, all the country's gold was mined in North Carolina. By the late 1820s, mines also sprung up in South Carolina, Virginia and North Georgia. Geologists call this gold region the Carolina Slate Belt. But it largely became an afterthought with the California gold rush. That's changing in Lancaster County, SC, where a Canadian company is in the process of reopening a mine near Kershaw that's nearly 200 years old. The Haile Gold Mine has had an on-again, off-again existence since 1827. Two wars have shut it down. In the Civil War, General Sherman marched through and destroyed all the mining equipment. During World War II, there weren't enough workers. Most young men were off fighting. And economics has shut it down, too. The easy-to-get gold near the surface is mined out. In recent years, technology wasn't around to get the deep stuff and make a profit It is now. Eleven exploratory drills are in operation. They dig up rock in 5-foot chucks from 600 to 3,000 feet deep. Geologists for Romarco Minerals say there's a lot of gold in this rock about 60 miles south of Charlotte. You have to take their word for it. "The gold is invisible. It' is microscopic, and it is bound up in microscopic pyrite," geologist Pete Butterfield says as he sprays water on core rock samples. Rows of tubular rock are lined up on tables in what's called the "core shack." This is where a lot of the testing and documentation of rock takes place. The water reveals a somewhat brassy color - microscopic pyrite. Fool's gold. "That's our visual clue that we're into gold-bearing rock," Butterfield says. Miniscule specs of gold that add up to 20 to 40 microns are dispersed in this rock. That's no thicker than a human hair - and a thin one at that. Chief Operating Officer James Arnold says modern grinding machines have made it possible to extract that gold. "20 years ago, you had a damn tough time grinding up this stuff fine enough to get the gold out," he ways. Every ton of ore grinded in milling machines is expected to produce just above 2 grams of gold when production begins in two years. That's less than the weight of a penny. This requires moving massive amounts of ground. Seven additional tons of earth is excavated for every ton of ore that goes through the mills. There aren't any permitted gold mines in the Carolinas, although another Canadian, Revolution Resources, is conducting preliminary drilling in central North Carolina. The company refused to name the exact location. Arnold, of the Haile Gold Mine, expects more gold companies to move to the region. "I'd be shocked if this doesn't become a major gold producer," he says. The chief geologist for the South Carolina Geological Survey has seen signs of that possibility. Scott Howard says representatives of gold firms have been calling him "non-stop" the last couple years. "They call our office, they ask for information - what kind of maps we have in an area, what kind of drill core we have from an area." Gold is selling at about $1,360 an ounce. Still, don't expect gold production to explode in the east, says Michael George. He's the gold commodities specialist for the US Geological Survey. "Out West, it's all public land, so you can get access to it relatively cheaply. If you're going to mine out East, you're going to have to either own the land or own the mineral rights underneath the land, and that can become expensive." If all goes as planned, the Haile Gold Mine will produce an average of 150,000 ounces a year. That would make South Carolina the nation's 7th largest gold producer, according to USGS figures. It will also employ a lot of people in Lancaster County, where the unemployment rate is nearly 16 percent. The company predicts 500 jobs during construction, and 300 full-time jobs when production begins. Hourly wages range from $11.80 to somewhere into the $20s. Mine Manager Brent Anderson says the area has a strong labor pool, especially for mechanics, electricians and equipment operators. "All the people are going to work here are going to be local. There are a lot of human resources here. The industries that have been closed down - a lot of those skill are transferable." The economic problems are obvious in the nearby town of Kershaw. The streets are quiet and lined with empty storefronts. Town manager Tony Starnes says the mine is already an economic boost. For example, Romarco has pledged to build a lab and be the first tenant in Kershaw's new industrial park. Still, he says there's a cost, especially close to the mine. The mine property was about 1,800 acres when Romarco arrived in late 2007. It's now about 7,000 acres. "People have been out there all their lives. Even thought they're not being forced to sell - some of them's concerned that if 'I don't sell I won't b able to sell" once the mining starts," Starnes says. A couple of homeowners in the process of selling agree, but say they're getting a better price than they would otherwise. As long as there's gold, that should continue. The mine's James Arnold says he has all the property he needs, but not all that he wants.