Monday numbers: A closer look at mining, including one polluter that refuses to pay

By: - June 27, 2022 6:00 am


Aerial of a mine showing the bare dirt and enormous pit
A mine in Orange County near Carrboro that was fined by the state for violating the terms of its permit. (Photo: USGS/Google)

Last week, the newly constituted state Mining Commission met for the first time since the Earth cooled. The delay was due to a Gov. McCrory-era legal rigmarole that raised the question of whether it was constitutional for state lawmakers to appoint people to the Mining Commission, along with similar bodies overseeing coal ash, and oil and gas. The courts said only the governor could make those appointments, so these three commissions, which had legislative appointments, disbanded.

(Beside the Mining Commission, the Oil and Gas Commission has also since reformed, but with Jim Womack as the chairman, does little but become embroiled in parliamentary procedure.)

On June 21, State Mining Engineer David Miller told the Mining Commission that his division is scrutinizing “emerging issues” related to extractive operations. For example, when a coastal mine is dewatered — essentially water is pumped out of the pit so the mining material can be removed — freshwater discharge can go into saltwater estuaries. Those estuaries serve as key habitats for aquatic life — organisms sensitive to temperature changes and salinity, as well as pollutants.

The Division of Waste Management is also concerned about leaching of materials from industrial mineral operations, Miller said. This includes so-called “beneficial fill,” allegedly inert material that is used to backfill a mine. Depending on the contents of the fill, the material could leach pollutants into the groundwater or surface water.

Of special concern is leaching associated with lithium mining; new testing requirements could affect the controversial Piedmont Lithium Mine in Gaston County. That operation has applied for, but not received a final permit.

Lithium mines would have to conduct tests to consider the effects of environmental conditions and waste on leaching. Because these operations can produce arsenic, antimony and sulfuric acid, they could also be subject to federal hazardous waste regulations unless they receive an exemption under the Bevill Amendment. Congress passed the amendment in 1980. It exempts many categories of waste from mining operations from these strict hazardous waste laws, although it’s legally unclear if lithium waste could get a pass.

Today we take a closer look at mining in North Carolina:

741 — Number of mines with ‘life of site’ permits in North Carolina

450 — Number of sand and gravel mines

161 — Number of crushed stone mines

4 — Number of gemstone mines

137,167 — Acres of permitted area, including interior roads, a little less than the area of Clay County

81,093 — Acres of bonded area, generally the pit and region of direct mining activity

4 — Number of enforcement actions/fines on permitted mines in North Carolina since 2018

$18,700 — Amount of fine assessed on the Bellamy Pit in Brunswick County for repeated mining in wetlands and outside the pit boundary. The mine owner, Bill Bellamy, hasn’t paid the fine, and the case has been sent to the state attorney general’s office for collection.

$112,000 — Maximum fine that could have been assessed, based on a rate of $500 per day

224 — Minimum number of days the Bellamy Pit was noncompliant

$19,600 — Penalty amount assessed to the Tony Merritt Gravel Pit in Orange County — the fine has been paid

$5,000 — Fines assessed to two mines each for mining without a permit: Casey Bailey mine in Davie County and the Anderson site in Craven County — in both cases, the fines has been paid

57 — Number of orphan mining sites, 2022. These are mines whose permits have expired but are still bonded; this is a financial guarantee posted by the mining operator. The state is responsible for these orphan sites.

90 — Number in 2018

98 — Number of mines, both active and released, in Pitt County, which ranks first in the state

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.