A Red Bluff mining project that Horry County Council blocked in 2017 will be allowed to proceed after county leaders reached a settlement with the mining company.
The agreement follows a federal judge’s ruling that the county’s mining ordinance conflicts with state law.
County spokeswoman Kelly Moore declined to comment on the settlement order, which was filed in federal court Thursday and signed by U.S. District Judge Sherri Lydon.
Lydon is the same judge who in April ruled that mine permitting is the responsibility of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Lydon wrote that a county permit would be “an impermissible veto power over DHEC decisions wielded by Horry County Council.”
The county’s rules for mines became the subject of controversy in 2017 when a group of residents in the Red Bluff area objected to having the mine in their community. The mining proposal also drew opposition from conservationists, who worried about the potential impacts on wetlands and the nearby Waccamaw River. Traffic and noise were also concerns.
The company behind the project wanted to extract limestone, sand and fill dirt from the site. Although DHEC had issued a mining permit for the property, county council refused to provide a local permit, citing the county’s mine permitting ordinance.
Red Bluff Rock, LLC, the company behind the project, then sued the county, alleging in court documents that county council’s decision cost the business tens of millions of dollars. The case was initially filed in state court but was later transferred to the federal system.
That led to Lydon’s April 15 decision.
“The legislature did not intend to reserve for local county councils a veto power over permits authorized by DHEC," the judge wrote. "Here, Horry County Council sought to issue mine permits and to enable itself to deny landowners the ability to engage in activity that they otherwise had a right to engage in under state law and the provisions of the Horry County zoning ordinance.”
This week’s settlement order states that the company can mine the site without a county permit. The right to mine will run with the nearly 50-acre tract.
“It is the intent of the Parties that the Plaintiffs, heirs, successors and assigns be allowed to operate a mine … without any interference whatsoever by the Defendants under or by way of the Defendant’s Mine Permit Ordinance or any subsequent mine permit ordinance that would purport to govern the Plaintiffs’ mining activities on the Property or any ordinance purporting to affect these vested rights,” the order states.
Each side in the lawsuit will pay its own legal fees and there is no admission of wrongdoing by either party.
Kerry Jardine, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the settlement.
County officials have not publicly discussed the case since Lydon’s ruling came down in April, though they did talk about the settlement behind closed doors during a May 5 council meeting. When the council returned to open session later in the meeting, they did not state what specific action they would take but they approved a motion to “accept the recommendations of trial counsel as presented in executive session.”
Councilman Danny Hardee, whose district includes the mine property, and council chairman Johnny Gardner were the only officials to vote against the deal. Councilman Harold Worley recused himself from the vote. Worley said he did so because the owner of the mining business, William Griste, is one of his tenants.
Two days after the meeting, county administrator Steve Gosnell signed the settlement.
While county officials have remained tight-lipped about the lawsuit, they have begun making multiple changes to the county’s zoning ordinance, including the removal of the entire chapter that deals with mining permits.