In winter, visitors to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge can hear the loud bugle call of the sandhill crane. If it’s warm, lethargic alligators may emerge from their burrows to soak up the sun. 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.
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.
“There is no question the Okefenokee is a special place and a unique and important environment that needs to be protected,” said Ben Emanuel, director of Clean Water Supply for American Rivers, which this year named the swamp and St. Marys River among the Most Endangered Rivers in America. “The proposed mining project could drastically change the way that water flows in the swamp and the St. Marys River.”
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. After federal agencies and other interested parties expressed concerns about potential damage to the swamp, the company withdrew the initial proposal. A revised plan for the first phase of mining came with a smaller footprint about 3 miles from the swamp to demonstrate that mining could be done without damaging the water flow of the swamp and rivers.
“The studies we have done are comprehensive and conclusive and detailed in our submissions to federal and state officials,” said Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines, noting that new modeling data was most recently provided to the state Environment Protection Division in November as part of the permit submission. They are currently preparing additional reports requested by the agency, he said.
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, including the Twin Pines mining project, no longer fall under federal jurisdiction.
All permitting for the project — which includes a handful of surface mining, water and air permits — is now under review by the state Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division.
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.
“The rule ... sends a clear message not just about the Okefenokee Swamp but about wetlands across the country that they are not valued by the current administration,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which has filed suit in the District of South Carolina.
Some opponents of the mining operation have suggested that political donations from Twin Pines have helped push the project forward, but Ingle, while acknowledging lobbying efforts over the past two years, said he has done nothing to influence politicians to act on his behalf. “There is a misperception in the public that politicians can do something, or would try, but the fact is with regard to our project, the process is the process and they can’t change it,” he said.
Supporters of the mine have said there is no evidence that the mine would harm the swamp, and they anticipate economic benefits to a community that has recently lost several large operations that contributed to its tax base.
“I think it is one of the those things where (the opposition) is not science driven, it is emotion driven,” said Joe Hopkins, a fourth-generation forest landowner from Folkston, on the east side of the refuge. “I don’t fault people for being emotional or having their own opinion. I just try to look at the science, and I can’t see any scientific evidence that this is a threat to the Okefenokee Swamp.”
Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
From the start, the project has been in the shadow of a 20-year-old legacy left by DuPont Co.’s attempt to mine 38,000 acres along Trail Ridge on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. Not only was the project defeated, but the company ended up donating 16,000 acres of land. “The story of the swamp and the DuPont proposal from 20 years ago is one of the defining moments of the conservation movement in Georgia,” Emanuel said.
But unlike Twin Pines, DuPont was a public company that faced pressure from stockholders as well as the public, said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the SELC. “And, of course, you had the secretary of the Interior coming down and making it clear to everyone involved that the Okefenokee Swamp had to be protected for the nation,” he said, referring to then-President Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt taking a helicopter flight over the mining site.
Many environmental advocates thought that was the end of sand mining near the swamp, but titanium, a mineral used in everything from paint to cosmetics, is a valuable resource serving a $30 billion industry.
In July 2019, Twin Pines submitted a permit application to mine 2,400 acres a few miles from the Okefenokee, touting innovative mining techniques that would minimize environmental impacts. Ingle said the mining operation would also bring jobs with salaries up to $20 per hour and benefits to the economically depressed county.
Twin Pines has been cited for environmental violations in Florida, for its operations with the Chemours Co., which included unauthorized discharges into the wetlands and not having a mitigation plan in place. Ingle is also at the helm of Green Fuels Energy LLC, which owns Georgia Renewable Power, a company that operates a pair of biomass facilities in rural Georgia that have been cited for violations by state regulators. The facilities were also the target of recent legislation to prevent burning of toxic rail ties.
For the Okefenokee mine, Ingle enlisted the help of two lobbyist groups, Cornerstone Government Affairs and Potomac South, which have received $230,000 and $95,000 respectively from 2019 to present, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Records show that Louis Perry III, the primary lobbyist for Cornerstone, made several $1,000 contributions to Sen. David Perdue throughout the permit application period beginning one week after Twin Pines filed its initial permit request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July 2019. The most recent contribution recorded on Oct. 13 occurred one day before the Corps completed its determination that wetlands in the project are excluded from the Clean Water Act jurisdiction.
“Sen. Perdue has repeatedly stated he wanted to ‘drain the swamp’ in D.C. But his intervention with the Corps at the behest of Twin Pines threatens to drain an actual swamp, a place hugely important to Georgia’s environment and economy. Instead of doing the bidding of a dirty Alabama mining company, he ought to be protecting the interests of Georgia,” said Josh Marks, an Atlanta-based attorney, who helped battle DuPont’s previously proposed Okefenokee mine.
Perry said those allegations are unfounded, noting that Cornerstone met with legislative staff that handle natural resources to inform them about the process, not to influence the question of whether the land was considered wetlands or not.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
“Twin Pines approached the application and the effort as if all of the land in question was jurisdictional. The (D.C.-based lobbyists) only learned the land in question was not jurisdictional after the Corps visited the site and did their own analysis and inspection and then informed Twin Pines in a letter,” said Perry.
Jenni Sweat, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the office received regular updates on the Twin Pines project as they do with many other Corps projects. “This presents an economic development opportunity in rural Southeast Georgia that local officials support, and our office has monitored its status through the federal and state regulatory process,” said Sweat in a statement.
Ingle said opponents of the project have far greater influence and even deeper pockets than Twin Pines. He contends that the proposal has strong local support in Charlton County. “We are beginning with a demonstration project to prove the technology is superior and that the Okefenokee will be unharmed,” he said. “If we can’t prove that, we’re out of business.”