HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Ahead of Tuesday night’s county council meeting, some concerned Horry County residents are calling on neighbors to make their voices heard.
Local leaders are preparing for the second reading of a set of ordinances that takes mining regulation responsibilities off of the county government’s shoulders and places it onto the state’s. The level of burden, however, is too light, according to some - because worried residents say it will compromise important regulations that allow the county to plan out the future of the community.
According to a federal judge’s ruling earlier this year, some of the responsibilities in mine permitting once claimed by local leaders were determined to be inconsistent with state regulation.
This is after a lawsuit stemming from the county’s permit denial for mining in the Red Bluff community.
“What county council is trying to do is make sure we’re doing things the right way so we don’t subject the county to millions and millions of dollars in a lawsuit,” explained Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner. “We’ve tried to do an ordinance that complies with the federal law and the state law and also at the same time, looks out for the best interest of the citizens that lives and works here in Horry County.”
But some residents said the ordinances being considered would harm the public’s ability to express their concerns and protect areas from mines where the community doesn’t want them.
Waccamaw Riverkeeper Cara Schildtknecht explained that these ordinances would alter the county’s zoning regulations to the point where there would be no restrictions on where mines can be placed.
“There comes the question between permitting versus zoning,” Schildtknecht said.
Concerned residents and county leaders said the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control carries the responsibility of permitting mines at the state level.
DHEC said in an email to WMBF Investigates that “the South Carolina Mining Act and Mining Regulations give DHEC regulatory authority over all mining in the state. While some counties and municipalities have their own ordinances in regard to mining, all mining operations are subject to state regulations.”
However, DHEC’s website states that the act does not supersede local zoning ordinances and that mining operations must conform with local zoning or land use ordinances.
But this is also what is being considered to be dropped from the county’s regulations on the books.
“Rather than the county just removing their permitting requirements that they shouldn’t have had in the first place, they’re going to remove all regulations pertaining to mining in the county,” Schildtknecht explained. “Keeping those zoning ordinances in place is really, really important, and we should be keeping those in place. It’s the county’s right to do that, and we should be doing it to protect the people who live here.”
DHEC isn’t the one to judge whether an area’s land use is compatible, said Amelia Wood, who has lived around mines in Horry County for decades.
“There are a lot of regulations that DHEC has, the reason because it’s an industry that can impact our water quality and air quality for people that live around it, so there’s a need for a lot of regulations,” Wood said. “But we can’t just depend on DHEC to tell where an appropriate place is for a mine.”
Horry County holds the most mines in the state - 52 out of South Carolina’s 511 active mines, according to DHEC. The county mines sand, sand/clay, limestone, and coquina.
Wood is concerned that the county’s future could entail mines being placed without much forethought throughout the county, should the government give up its ability to zone, after the county’s comprehensive plan recently determined how citizens' wanted the land to be used. She also said it would reduce the public’s awareness of notice of a potential mine.
“They will be required to change the language in the Imagine 2040 plan, which was developed over a period of a couple years,” Wood said. “And the language in the plan will have to be changed in order to accommodate mines in the scenic and conservation areas.”
She explained that these areas are where development is meant to proceed with caution.
District 10 Councilman Danny Hardee, who represents one of the largest and most rural districts, said he was not in favor of losing protections for those they represent.
“Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against mining. We’ve got to have that product,” Hardee said. “If we closed down all mining in Horry County, all mining in surrounding areas, we couldn’t afford to build our roads.”
He said that miners have to go where the product is though, and sometimes its location can cause major problems for those who live in the area. He said DHEC isn’t responsible for assessing those pitfalls in the way that local government can.
"You can bring 10,000 people down there saying ‘We don’t want this mine’. And if you can’t show technically why that mine shouldn’t be there - there’s something wrong with the way it’s been engineered or so forth, or whatever, and you can’t say - ‘I just don’t want a mine in my backyard; I don’t want to be bothered by it or I don’t want to put up with the noise, and this kind of stuff,’” Hardee said. “They are going to still issue the permit. They don’t care whether you like it or not.”
Gardner said the council is looking at notification and announcement of potential mines very closely, saying that mine projects who apply would have to let their county council know.
“He can take whatever action that he and his people want, so that’s a good safeguard right there,” Gardner said. “Number two, DHEC and the state of South Carolina have a public input built into their process, so the county - people that live in that area - would have a means two-fold. They would be able to get with their county councilmember, and also that DHEC would have a venue for them to air their grievances.”
Both residents and county councilmen alike are asking citizens to reach out to share their concerns about the proposed ordinances.
“Community involvement is a good thing. But for tomorrow - that’s public input. So we’ll hear from the community any concerns they have, good or bad, then county council will have a discussion on that, and then we’ll vote on it,” Gardner said. “But as far as my position, I take the same position going into this as I would any other potential ordinance that we have. I want to listen to both sides, and I want to do what I think is right or is the best option for the citizens and residents of Horry County.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, there will be time for public discussion over the ordinances before the second reading. A third and final reading is planned for early December.
“DHEC can’t decide where to put a mine - that’s not their job. And if the county council tries to relieve themselves of that responsibility, I think they’ll be sorry,” Wood said. “It will be the wild, wild west, for sure.”