Bill to ban mine permits near the Okefenokee is unlikely to pass

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division continues to assess company’s mining plans

Bipartisan legislation that would have banned mining permits along the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s edge is now unlikely to receive a committee hearing, effectively ending its chances of passing the General Assembly this session.

House Bill 1289 would prohibit Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division from issuing new mining permits or amending existing ones on Trail Ridge, an ancient sand dune complex that runs along the eastern edge of the swamp. Experts have warned that mining there could risk permanent damage to the swamp’s fragile ecosystem.

The bill was introduced last month by Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, and has 17 co-sponsors. However, since the ban would not have kicked in until after July 1, it likely would not have halted the plans of Twin Pines Minerals.

The Alabama-based company is seeking approval from the EPD to break ground on a 740-acre demonstration mine less than three miles from the refuge. In recent weeks, EPD officials have indicated that the company’s mining land use plan could soon be released for public comment. Once that period is complete, the agency could issue draft permits for the mine and open those to more public input.

A spokesperson for Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee that the bill is assigned to, said Smith wants the EPD to assess Twin Pines’ mining application before taking up the legislation. While the bill likely would not have affected Twin Pines’ proposal, it would have stopped that company and others from mining on additional acreage in the future.

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah — who co-sponsored the bill — said more research is needed to determine which parts of Trail Ridge must be protected to avoid disrupting the swamp.

“We found out there’s already some mining going on farther down the ridge, so we decided to come back next year,” Stephens said. “But it’s something that needs to happen. We need to protect the Okefenokee.”

Environmental group’s lamented the bill’s possible demise.

“It is extremely disappointing to hear that the bill is likely dead for the session,” said Megan Desrosiers, the president and CEO of the coastal conservation group One Hundred Miles.

The news comes as the EPD continues to scrutinize Twin Pines’ application. On February 23, EPD staff met with representatives from TTL — an engineering firm that is assisting Twin Pines with its mining plans — to get more details on the mining plans. Minutes from the meeting show that EPD still has questions about Twin Pines’ proposal, particularly how the company plans to safely handle and monitor its wastewater.