Conservation groups form coalition to prevent mining at Okefenokee

Aerial photography shows proposed mining site (right) located north of Ga. 94 (left vertical) in Saint George. In July, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals applied for a permit to mine for titanium along Trail Ridge near the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

More than 30 national, state and regional organizations have formed a coalition to prevent a proposed  titanium mine near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Organizers of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance (OPA) said the mission is to protect the refuge, “from any activities that could jeopardize the integrity of the swamp now and in the future.”

“It is pretty rare to have coalitions of this size that are focused on a single resource,” said Christian Hunt, southeast representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “This coalition is a testament to the world class value of the Okefenokee and really its national import.”

>> READ MORE: Mining proposal raises concerns about future of Okefenokee Swamp

Members include the Georgia Conservancy, Sierra Club chapters, Defenders of Wildlife, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia River Network, and several Riverkeepers.

Though the group is planning to operate in the long-term , it is currently focusing efforts on a permit application from Twin Pines Minerals LLC, an Alabama-based company that began seeking authorization for a mining project last year. Designed to roll out in phases, the project could eventually extend over 12,000 acres coming close to the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

ExploreIn February, the company withdrew its initial permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and submitted revised plans for a scaled down operation on 898 acres.

Twin Pines officials said the revised project would serve as a demonstration mine to show that heavy mineral sand mining could be conducted in an environmentally responsible manner and to validate previous models that predicted the mining operation would have a negligible impact on the swamp, two rivers and the water saturated rock beneath the swamp which is the water source for south Georgia and Florida.

Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines said they hoped to move forward with the project and bring economic benefits to south Georgia. “Though we disagree with the opponents of our project, we understand and respect their opinions. However, it is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to whom we answer, we trust their judgement and are going to adhere to whatever course of action they instruct us to follow,” Ingle said.

During the most recent period of public comment for the project which ended May 28, the Corps received more than 30,000  comments, said Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the Corps. The Corps is reviewing comments and has not yet issued its report but environmental organizations have continued to push for an environmental impact statement, a heightened review required by federal law when a project may have a significant environmental impact, said Megan Huynh, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, (SELC).

>> READ MORE: Virtual meeting on Okefenokee mining proposal leaves many questions

Critics of the project have said Twin Pines has not presented adequate data or models to demonstrate how mining could potentially impact the movement and distribution of surface and groundwater of the swamp and nearby waterways.

The concerns come at a time when the federal government has announced plans to revise historic environmental regulations that could eliminate some requirements and limit the amount of time and data traditionally involved in environmental impact statements for certain projects. It was unclear exactly how any revisions might impact the Twin Pines project.

SELC attorneys said with such strong opposition to the project coming from communities, conservation groups and public agencies, limiting the public input process in such cases would “amount to an illegal attempt by the administration to cut corners in a way that courts have rejected time and again.”

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