Bipartisan bill aims to protect Okefenokee Swamp from titanium mining

Ga. legislative effort comes days after Twin Pines’ mining plans were released for public comment

A south Georgia House Republican has renewed her efforts to prevent mining near the ecologically fragile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge — just as a years-long effort by an Alabama company to extract titanium near the swamp appears to be nearing the finish line.

Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville) filed House Bill 71 — also known as the Okefenokee Protection Act — on Tuesday, with the signatures of at least 34 other legislators, including 21 Republicans. The bill was assigned Wednesday to the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee chaired by Lynn Smith (R-Newnan).

The bill would not affect the immediate strip-mining plans of Twin Pines Minerals LLC, which is seeking permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for a 582-acre titanium and zirconium “demonstration mine” less than 3 miles from the refuge.

But the legislation would bar EPD from issuing, modifying or renewing mining permits after July 1 on Trail Ridge, the inland dune system that forms the eastern boundary of the Okefenokee, including the area where Twin Pines wants to mine. Any effort to expand the mine would require a new set of permits.

A spokesman for Twin Pines declined to comment on the bill’s potential impact.

The legislation’s introduction comes less than a week after state environmental regulators released the company’s mining plans and opened a 60-day public comment period, a significant step forward for the project.

Twin Pines and EPD have said their analyses show that the mine would not lower water levels in the swamp. Carter Chapman, a spokesman for Gov. Brian Kemp, directed a request for comment to EPD, citing the agency’s ongoing review of Twin Pines’ permits.

But federal officials and a University of Georgia scientist (UGA) disagree, warning that mining on Trail Ridge could permanently damage the fragile ecosystem.

The Okefenokee is the largest federal wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River — home to thousands of species, including 40 species of mammals, more than 200 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles, and more than 600 plant species. The refuge also contains millions of tons of carbon-rich peat, which keeps huge amounts of heat-trapping gases from escaping into the atmosphere.

Taylor, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on Health, led an effort to pass similar legislation that fizzled during the 2022 session.

In a statement, Taylor said she has grave concerns about Twin Pines’ plans and said the General Assembly must act to protect the refuge.

“Leading scientists agree that the current application to mine titanium along the swamp’s southeastern boundary is rife with mistakes and untested processes that could irreversibly damage the swamp’s ecological integrity,” she said.

The swamp is visited by an estimated 700,000 tourists each year; Taylor said its importance as an economic driver for southeast Georgia also warrants protection.

“The swamp supports over 700 jobs and generates $65 million in revenue annually,” she said. “I am certain that no mining venture can generate that sort of sustainable economic boost for local communities.”

Once fully operational, Twin Pines has said its mine would create roughly 400 full-time jobs and boost local tax revenues.

Environmental attorney Josh Marks — who worked successfully to block a similar proposal by the chemical giant DuPont to mine near the swamp in the late 1990s — cheered the bill’s filing and called on the Legislature to act.

“Having witnessed DuPont’s attempt to mine at the Okefenokee and now TPM’s, the swamp will continue to be at risk without this legislative action,” Marks said. “Kudos to Representative Taylor and the unprecedented bipartisan coalition she has mobilized for standing up to protect Georgia’s greatest natural treasure.”

The public comment period on Twin Pines’ plans ends at the close of business on March 20. When the window closes, EPD says it will review all feedback, recommend any necessary changes and potentially issue the company a draft surface-mining permit. If a draft permit is issued, another public comment period would begin for a yet-undetermined period of time.

Twin Pines still needs to obtain other permits from state regulators, including a groundwater withdrawal permit and an air permit. The company has submitted applications, but the status of those permits is not known.

Information on how to submit comments on the mining plan, plus links to register for the two virtual public meetings on the plan scheduled for Feb. 21 and 23, are available here.

About the Author