A mine near the Okefenokee promises jobs. But many locals oppose it

More than 500 residents from counties surrounding the proposed mine site signed a petition opposing the project
Rev. Antwon Nixon holds a folder with signed petitions in support of House Bill 71 at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.  The legislation, also known at the Okefenokee Protection Act, would protect the wildlife refuge from the construction of a titanium mine. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Rev. Antwon Nixon holds a folder with signed petitions in support of House Bill 71 at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. The legislation, also known at the Okefenokee Protection Act, would protect the wildlife refuge from the construction of a titanium mine. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

A company pursuing permits to mine for titanium on the doorstep of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge says their project will bring badly needed, good-paying jobs to rural south Georgia.

But some residents from counties near the site told state legislators Monday that they don’t support the mine, arguing the risk of potential harm to the swamp outweighs the economic benefit their communities might get in return.

A petition signed by 521 residents of four counties in the swamp’s vicinity — Charlton, Glynn, Wayne, and Ware — was presented Monday at the Georgia State Capitol. The document appeals to legislators and state officials to “take every possible measure to ensure the long-term protection of the Okefenokee Swamp.”

Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, LLC., is seeking permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to strip mine for titanium and zirconium on 584 acres less than three miles from the refuge. Titanium alloys are used in aircraft and weapons systems, but the element’s most common use is in titanium dioxide, a whitening compound used in toothpaste, sunscreen, paint and other household products.

Twin Pines’ controversial plan has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists and some scientists for years.

The petition specifically calls for lawmakers to back a bill in the General Assembly that would block future mining near the swamp.

Wayne County resident Betty Benner speaks in support of House Bill 71 on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. The legislation, also known at the Okefenokee Protection Act, would protect the wildlife refuge from the construction of a titanium mine. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The proposed bill — House Bill 71 — would not block the demonstration mine that Twin Pines has asked state environmental regulators to approve. But if passed, it would prevent the project from expanding and block new mining along most of Trail Ridge, the ancient sand dune formation that borders the Okefenokee.

“We hope that our local government and those here in Atlanta will support this bill to help get it across the floor,” said Rev. Antwon Nixon, the pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Folkston, a town of just over 4,000 on the swamp’s east side.

More than half of the petition’s signees hail from Charlton County, where the mine would be located. Twin Pines has promised the project will create about 400 full-time jobs, with annual salaries averaging around $60,000. That’s significantly more than the county’s median household income of $45,770, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It will provide hundreds of good-paying jobs in an area where there are many people in need of employment and we’re ready to put them to work,” Twin Pines’ president Steve Ingle said in a statement.

The company says their mine will have no effect on the ecology or tourism in the Okefenokee, which is a key part of the local economy. The swamp draws 700,000 visitors a year and generates $64.7 million in economic output, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But some who live near the Okefenokee, like Sandra Aldridge of Waycross, about 20 miles north of the swamp, say the promise of employment is not worth the risk of damage to the ecosystem. Prominent hydrologists have said that mining within three miles of the refuge, as Twin Pines plans to do, could lower water levels in the swamp, making it more prone to wildfires.

“Jobs are great — I support having good jobs,” Aldridge said. “But I feel like nature and history are just irreplaceable.”

Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, speaks in support of House Bill 71 on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. The legislation, also known at the Okefenokee Protection Act, would protect the wildlife refuge from the construction of a titanium mine. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

It’s unclear what the bill’s odds are of passing this session. In 2022 and 2023, earlier versions of the bill failed to advance out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, which is led by Chairman Lynn Smith (R-Newnan).

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville), said Monday she is optimistic about the bill’s chances, but that some House leaders still have reservations about the legislation.

“I don’t have control over it,” Taylor said. “That’s the downside. And there are a lot of issues going on right now.”

As the bill’s supporters push for its passage again, last week Twin Pines agreed to pay a $20,000 fine to EPD for drilling soil samples back in 2018 without a professional geologist on site, as Georgia law requires. The company also did not post the necessary bond required for the work.

In a statement, Lewis Jones, an attorney for Twin Pines, disputed that a violation occurred.

“We agreed to sign the consent order to put this matter behind us and move our project forward,” Jones said.

Last year, EPD released Twin Pines’ mining plans to the public, but no draft permits have been issued yet.

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with Green South Foundation and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/

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