Environmental groups ramping up opposition to Okefenokee mining project

The sights and sounds of hundreds of wildlife species have helped secure the Okefenokee Swamp’s status as an environment of national importance. And it’s why environmental advocates have spent more than a year fighting a proposal that could . allow a mineral mining operation within 400 feet of the swamp’s edge. Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals has proposed a $300 million titanium mining operation, . which could ultimately span 12,000 acres of land, part of which borders the Okefenokee Swamp. Supporters say the project can be done without harming the swamp and would be an economic driver bringing jobs to an area that desperately needs them. The project is among the highest-profile developments to fall under new federal rules, . freeing it from federal oversight and putting a national spotlight on Georgia. Environmental advocates had lobbied for an extensive review that applies to some federal projects, but the Trump administration’s. new Navigable Waters Protection Rule redefined wetlands so that many mining and development projects no longer fall under federal jurisdiction. Environmental advocates have taken their efforts to protect the Okefenokee and other wetlands to . U.S. courts with 13 lawsuits challenging the Navigable Waters Protection Rule

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Environmental groups are ramping up their efforts to fight a controversial, $300 million proposal to mine property near Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, a proposal that now has the attention of Georgia’s newly elected Democratic senators.

More than two years ago, Twin Pines Minerals began acquiring multimillion-dollar parcels of land near the south end of the swamp’s barrier for the purpose of titanium mining. Last year, the Alabama-based company filed permit requests with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a project that would ultimately include 12,000 acres near the wildlife refuge.

But under new environmental regulations issued during the Trump administration, the project no longer requires federal approval since Twin Pines reduced the proposed mine — which is located in Charlton County — to less than 600 acres. Twin Pines President Steve Ingle announced this past October that reducing the project’s size ensures “there will be no impact to ‘waters of the United States’ as defined by the new Navigable Waters Protection Rule.

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Under the prior definition of “waters of the United States,” the first phase of the project included about 400 acres of protected, jurisdictional wetlands, said environmental advocates who have expressed concerns that the revised federal rules reduce the number and type of waterways regulated by the federal government.

Twin Pines has applied to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for five permits needed before the company can begin the project, which lies within three miles of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which is governed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“If we are granted the necessary permits for the demonstration mine, we would start hiring immediately and begin mining and processing materials as soon as possible,” Ingle said this week. “How long we maintain operations in Charlton County depends on what the regulators tell us we can and cannot do as the project evolves, but we hope to be there for up to 20 years.”

Earlier this month, Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff toured the swamp by boat and helicopter and was briefed by Fish and Wildlife officials, according to the Savannah Morning News,

Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff recently was briefed on a mining project near the Okefenokee Swamp. (Photo submitted by Ossoff Senate office)
Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff recently was briefed on a mining project near the Okefenokee Swamp. (Photo submitted by Ossoff Senate office)

“The Okefenokee is a sacred natural resource,” Ossoff said in a statement issued by his office. He noted the agency must participate in the ongoing effort to “assess damage that could result” from proposed mining around the swamp.

Ingle said the regulatory process is “totally beyond our control. We’ll continue to follow the regulatory guidelines, do whatever the EPD instructs us to do in the permitting process and will follow their lead should we be granted permission to move ahead.”

In the wake of Ossoff’s visit, the Georgia River Network, an advocacy group for the state’s waterways, hosted a fundraiser that raised about $9,000 in opposition to the project. “The Okefenokee Swamp is an international treasure and it should not be risked for a common mineral like titanium that could be mined more safely elsewhere,” said executive director Rena Ann Peck. She said her organization will use the money to mount a grassroots campaign that will send “a record-breaking amount of letters of concern to the EPD,” as well as promote Okefenokee rural economic development around outdoor recreation and expand recreation and tourism on a sustainable basis.

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Signs such as these are being distributed by environmental groups opposed to a mining operation near the Okefenokee National Refuge. (Photo courtesy of the Georgia River Network)
Signs such as these are being distributed by environmental groups opposed to a mining operation near the Okefenokee National Refuge. (Photo courtesy of the Georgia River Network)

According to Peck, Gov. Brian Kemp has received more than 10,000 emails and phone calls from citizens asking him to stop the project. She also said the EPD has received 32,000 emails in opposition.

In its initial phase, the proposed 8,000-acre titanium mine would impact 600 acres of land along Trail Ridge near the swamp and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Trail Ridge acts as a geomorphological dam helping to maintain water levels in the swamp and the mining would involve digging deep pits into this ridge and pumping groundwater from beneath the land and swamp. The Georgia River Network and scientists warn that the project could alter water levels in the swamp, irreparably damaging the swamp’s ecosystem as well as swamp tourism that supports an estimated 750 local jobs.

The map shows Trail Ridge, the area along the refuge’s eastern boundary targeted for titanium mining. Image Okefenokee Protection Alliance
The map shows Trail Ridge, the area along the refuge’s eastern boundary targeted for titanium mining. Image Okefenokee Protection Alliance

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said there is no timeline for opening the public comment period, and referred The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the agency’s fact sheet on the project.

“Twin Pines submitted the application for a surface mining permit and mining land use plan (MLUP) on November 13, 2020, and the provision addendum on Feb. 17, 2021,” the fact sheet said. “These submittals have gone through a thorough review and EPD made comments on April 20, 2021 ... Once EPD is satisfied with the updated versions of the application and MLUP, public comments will be formally requested.”

EPD’s fact sheet on the project’s permitting process also said it will review the proposal “with a focus on how the project’s proximity to the National Wildlife Refuge may impact the area’s groundwater hydrology.”

Ingle maintains environmental models show its operations would have negligible impact on the swamp and surrounding waterways.

“We have hired some of the world’s top environmental engineers who have studied, and continue to study, the geology, hydrology, herpetology and botany of the site and its relationship to the Okefenokee and surrounding environs,” he said. “We can’t move forward until their studies satisfy the EPD’s requirements that show our operations will protect the swamp’s ecosystem.

Any failure by Twin Pines to comply with EPD rules could result in fines or shutdown, Ingle said.

We’re going to invest up to $300 million in the project and it makes no business sense whatsoever to place that investment at risk. Protecting the swamp is the right thing to do both financially and altruistically, and we look forward to proving the mine will protect the Okefenokee.”

The company is also touting the project’s economic benefits, including employing about 400 full-time workers earning an average of $60,000 a year. Twin Pines cites census data showing Charlton County’s median household income from 2014 to 2018 was just over $40,000 a year, and its 2018 per capita income was $19,341.

But the risks outweigh the benefits, opponents say.

“Nearly everyone, of all political stripes, can agree the Twin Pines mine is so outrageously sited, it’s in a risk class of its own,” said Defenders of Wildlife Christian Hunt. “Some projects should never even be discussed, much less permitted, and this is one such venture. Dozens of organizations will keep fighting for this special place, no matter how long it takes.”

According to the Okefenokee Protection Alliance, the refuge is home to thousands of species in the swamp’s cypress forests, pine islands, lily ponds and blackwater channels, including 49 species of mammals; 233 species of birds; 64 species of reptiles; and 600 plant species.

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