HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WPDE) — A sand mine in Horry County just a couple yards from the edge of a nature preserve sits quietly right now. Not because there's no more sand or clay to extract, but because the state has told the company to stop work on the site.
This happened back in October 2021, but it's making news headlines now because members of the Coastal Conservation League and South Carolina Environmental Law Project contend the mine should never have been allowed to operate in the first place, and there was soil facilitation taking place as late as mid-February.
Conservationists point to recently captured aerial views of the mine site along Edge Road just a few miles from Old Highway 90 and SC 90. The CCL took a drone over the mining site after neighbors alerted them to activity on and off of the private road leading to it.
"We noticed that the operator was back out there, not loading-trucks this time but certainly moving materials around," said North Zone Project Manager for the CCL Trapper Fowler.
Fowler says their mindfulness of the Edge Road Mine also came as somewhat the request of SCDHEC. He says they relayed to the League that the agency could not monitor the mine site to make sure that all work had stopped, so they told the League to keep an eye on it.
"It says that mining is defined as breaking of the surface soil to facilitate or to accomplish the extraction, " Fowler said quoting the definition from the SC Mining Act. "They were certainly under the definition I just gave you mining.”
Officials with and affiliated with the company operating the mine see it differently. Soilutions, LLC holds the deed to the land and applied for the General Permit as well as held a General Coastal Zone Consistency certification. A company official told ABC 15 News that they are in good standing with SCDHEC. DHEC also confirmed with us that they have 'no knowledge or data' that the mine is impacting the nearby nature preserve.
The concern there is the fact that this mine sits within yards of the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. One of the only places in the state that holds endangered and threatened plant and animal species like the Venus Flytraps, spotted turtle, and red-cockaded woodpecker.
Within the general mining permit, SCDHEC stipulates that "Mining operations shall not be located within environmentally sensitive habitats or where threatened or endangered species are known to exist."
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Company officials confirmed there was a state-protected turtle species on-site and the woodpecker was seen foraging in the area. However, the independent biologists informed the agency and company that the birds did not appear to be nesting on the site, just within the heritage preserve. Craig Kennedy spoke to ABC15 on behalf of Soilutions, he is a consultant for them applying for the mine expansion permit.
"RCWs will not suffer from any loss of critical habitat related to the Edge Road Mine," Kennedy said. "There are RCW cavity trees within the LOB preserve, and based upon the wildlife biologist’s assessment, RCWs will continue to have sufficient forging area within the LOB preserve."
The mine has a 50-foot buffer between it and the heritage preserve. We asked Kennedy about the controversy with there still being work performed on the site. The mine was granted a permit to dig back in September 2021, and following a request for review from the League, DHEC learned that it had given the certificate in error because the permit had expired in December 2018.
DHEC officials claim that the certificate was, "thought to have been captured by a Joint Resolution permit extension bill, so staff believed that the GCZC was still valid for a couple of additional years."
Kennedy says the operations did not stop due to any fault by the company. However, after they stopped work on October 11, 2021, Kennedy confirms that they continued taking material off of the site until DHEC called them and told them to stop. That stoppage happened more than a month after DHEC took away their permits.
"Soilutions believed it was lawful to remove stockpiled sand/clay and continued to do so after the October 11, 2021 letter. This belief was confirmed by DHEC personnel during an October 28, 2021 site inspection," Kennedy said. "Soilutions representative present during the inspection asked if stockpiled sand/clay could be removed and the response from the DHEC inspector was, yes."
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When asked about the most recent video showing work on the site in mid-February, Kennedy said that was for a job applicant.
"The activity in question shown in the video was not mining. The equipment shown in the video is not a front-end loader but is a mini excavator," Kennedy said. "As such, a mini excavator was being operated by a prospective employee as an interview and practice for a planned excavation for construction of a pool. The size and depth of the excavation shown in the video is consistent with a small pool excavation."
Fowler, quoting the definition of mining in the SC mining act, sees it differently.
“All operations were to be stopped and it clearly shows on that drone that the surface soil was being moved," Fowler said.
He said DHEC officials plan to visit the site, but it's unclear when that will happen. In the meantime, Soilutions wants to continue their work under the mining and reclamation program. They eventually want to mine the site and deliver it back over to the state or county to turn into a lake or pond for nature preservation efforts, according to Kennedy.
The company is requesting to change the size of the mine on the 33-acre parcel. They want to grow from roughly five acres to 20 and dig deeper going from 20 feet to 50 feet.
Public comment will be allowed until Wednesday, March 9 in regards to the application. You can submit comments to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
DHEC issued a total of 45 General Mine Operating Permits (GP1s) since the date the General Coastal Zone Certification expired (Dec. 3, 2018). Agency officials say 28 are still active with expired General Coastal Zone Certifications (GCZCs); however, these activities were reviewed and determined to be consistent with the South Carolina Coastal Management Program. One is active with a GCZC issued prior to expiration, another was issued an individual CZC. Agency officials say 14 have been cancelled as reclaimed or have been issued Individual CZCs and Individual Mine Operating Permits including 10 with Individual CZCs and Individual Mine Operating Permits and the GP1s having been cancelled, 4 having been reclaimed and the GP1 permit cancelled, and the 1 rescinded ofr the Edge Road Mine.