Mining company sues over Army Corps’ ruling on Okefenokee mine

Lawsuit comes after the Corps restored federal oversight of the project earlier this month.

The company behind a years-long quest to mine for titanium at the edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Georgia has filed a new lawsuit over a recent ruling that restored federal oversight of the project.

In a sign of President Biden’s emphasis on environmental protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on June 3 reversed a decision made during the Trump administration, which had left the project’s fate up to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. The new determination means that to move forward, the mine will have to clear the high bar of a comprehensive review by the Corps, which is likely to take years to complete.

ExploreOkefenokee mine project dealt major blow by Army Corps of Engineers

But a lawsuit filed last week by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals LLC — which wants to extract titanium from soils near the Okefenokee Swamp — challenges the Corps’ decision to reassert federal control.

The company wants to mine on a 740-acre segment of Trail Ridge, an ancient sand dune complex that runs along the swamp’s eastern edge. But environmental groups and outside experts on hydrology have long warned that mining in the area could drain the swamp and permanently damage the fragile ecosystem.

Combined ShapeCaption
Aerial photography shows a portion of Trail Ridge and a proposed titanium mining site on the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Experts have warned that mining in the area risks disrupting the swamp's fragile ecosystem and endangered wildlife. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Aerial photography shows a portion of Trail Ridge and a proposed titanium mining site on the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Experts have warned that mining in the area risks disrupting the swamp's fragile ecosystem and endangered wildlife. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Aerial photography shows a portion of Trail Ridge and a proposed titanium mining site on the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Experts have warned that mining in the area risks disrupting the swamp's fragile ecosystem and endangered wildlife. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In a complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court, lawyers for Twin Pines argue that their planned mine, located within three miles of the swamp, will have no effect on water levels. The lawsuit called the Corps’ decision “unlawful and unwarranted.”

At the center of the case is whether the Muscogee (Creek) Nation — one of the Native American tribes for whom the Okefenokee Swamp has huge cultural and historical significance — was properly consulted when the decision to remove federal oversight was made.

In its June 3 memo, the Corps’ said it was rescinding its ruling because the government failed to formally solicit feedback from the tribe.

But Twin Pines’ lawyers say that the tribes’ views are irrelevant to the Corps’ determination on whether it has jurisdiction over the mine. They also claim the Corps made its decision without knowing whether the tribe had any new or pertinent information that could have affected their initial ruling.

Twin Pines declined to comment on the case. Muscogee (Creek) Nation offices were closed Monday for a tribal holiday and attempts to contact them were unsuccessful.

The Army Corps of Engineers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Megan Huynh, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center — one of several organizations involved in fighting the proposed mine — said the Corps’ made the right decision in June and said it was up to Twin Pines to prove its mining plan is safe.

“Despite Twin Pines’ repeated attempts over the years to move the goal posts and avoid fundamental environmental requirements intended to protect iconic places like the Okefenokee, the fact remains that the company has not and cannot show that its proposed mine would not cause irreparable harm,” she said.