Mining Resumes At Old South Carolina Gold Mine

fromWFAE

Gold was first discovered in South Carolina in 1827. By 1990, the gold that was left at the Haile Gold Mine was too deep and expensive to get because the right technology didn't exist. That's changed now, and a Canadian company is in the process of reopening the mine.

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A gold rush is underway in South Carolina. It's a new development for South Carolina, and also an old one. The Carolinas used to lead the country in gold production, until an 1849 discovery in California made the Southeast an afterthought. Now that's changing. A Canadian company is reopening a mine in South Carolina that's almost 200 years old.

Greg Collard reports from member station WFAE.

GREG COLLARD: Gold was first discovered here in South Carolina in 1827. By 1990, the gold that was left at the Haile Gold Mine was too deep and expensive to get. The right technology wasn't around to make a profit. It is now.

(Soundbite of drills)

COLLARD: Eleven exploratory drills are in operation at this mine. They dig up rock in five-foot chucks from 600 to 3,000 feet deep. Geologists for Romarco Minerals say there's a lot of gold in this rock. You have to take their word for it.

(Soundbite of spraying)

Mr. PETE BUTTERFIELD (Geologist): The gold is invisible. It is microscopic, and it's bound up in the microscopic pyrite.

COLLARD: Geologist Pete Butterfield sprays water on core rock samples in what's called the core shack. This is where a lot of the testing takes place. He scratches a sample.

Mr. BUTTERFIELD: If you look very close, all of this brassy color is microscopic pyrite. It's like - it looks like smoke in the rock.

COLLARD: Fool's Gold, and that's good.

Mr. BUTTERFIELD: That's our visual clue that we're into gold-bearing rock.

COLLARD: These miniscule specks of gold are no thicker than a human hair, and a thin one at that. Romarco's James Arnold says modern grinding machines have made it possible to extract these almost-invisible samples of gold.

Mr. JAMES ARNOLD (Romarco Minerals): Twenty years ago, we had a damn tough time grinding up this stuff fine enough to get the gold out.

COLLARD: Every ton of ore is expected to produce about two grams of gold, less than the weight of a penny. There are not any permitted gold mines in the Carolinas, although another Canadian firm is conducting preliminary drilling in North Carolina. Arnold expects more gold companies to move to the region.

Mr. ARNOLD: I would be shocked if this doesn't become a major gold producer.

Mr. SCOTT HOWARD (Geologist, South Carolina Geological Survey): It's just nonstop lately.

COLLARD: Scott Howard is the chief geologist for the South Carolina Geological Survey. He says representatives of gold firms regularly ask for maps and drill samples.

Mr. HOWARD: They call our office, they ask for information - you know, what kind of maps we might have available of an area, whether we have any drill core in an area.

COLLARD: The price of gold is selling at record levels. Still, don't expect gold production to explode in the East, says Michael George. He's a commodities specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mr. MICHAEL GEORGE (Commodities Specialist, U.S. 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.

COLLARD: So far, Romarco says it's invested $100 million in the Haile Gold Mine since 2007. If all goes as planned, when the mine opens in two years, it will produce an average of 150,000 ounces a year. That would make South Carolina the nation's seventh-largest gold producer.

The operation will also employ hundreds of people in a county where the unemployment rate is almost 16 percent. Some residents are already making money. The size of the mine has almost quadrupled since Romarco took over, as the company buys surrounding land. 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.

For NPR News, I'm Greg Collard.

(Soundbite of music)

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