Okefenokee mining project won’t need federal approval under revised rules

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

A mining project near Okefenokee Swamp will no longer require federal approval under new environmental regulations issued by the Trump administration.

The determination, announced this week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gives a significant boost to a project that environmental advocates and government agencies have said could cause irreparable harm to the swamp.

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 Corps for a project that would ultimately include 12,000 acres near the wildlife refuge.

Environmental groups have spent several months asking the federal agency to require an extensive review of potential environmental impacts, but the Corps concluded that the wetlands in a revised proposal for a smaller mining area proposed by the company are not protected under new federal rules and would therefore not be subject to such an extensive review.

“In consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we have reduced the size of the proposed mine in Charlton County to less than 600 acres, and we have reconfigured its footprint to ensure there will be no impact to “waters of the United States” as defined by the new Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” said Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines LLC in a statement Tuesday.

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.

On Wednesday, Twin Pines withdrew its permit applications with the Corps as the project no longer falls under the agency’s purview, said Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell.

State permitting is still required and Twin Pines has submitted more than a half-dozen applications to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for water, air and mining permits — most of which are under review or being revised, according to an agency spokesman. Ingle has maintained that environmental models show Twin Pines operations would have negligible impact on the swamp and surrounding waterways.

The shift has dramatically changed the landscape for this project and possibly other projects nationwide, said environmentalists.

“It is a significant reversal and it shows the impact that the replacement rule has had on this site and will probably have on many other sites across the country,” said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Since the Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule took effect in June, the Corps' Savannah District has posted almost 40 approved jurisdictional determinations under the new regulation, said Kelly Moser, senior attorney for SELC. “For the first time ever, critical streams are categorically not protected by the rule, and wetlands critical to the hydrology of the Okefenokee Swamp are left unprotected," Moser said.

The Corps' decision comes just weeks after TIAA — owners of the timberlands that cover about 25% of the project area — revealed that Twin Pines has not secured rights to conduct mining operations on TIAA property. It was unclear if Twin Pines had submitted application revisions removing TIAA-owned properties from the project area.

The recent events impacting the project are a marked change from 20 years ago when DuPont Co.'s attempt to mine 38,000 acres along Trail Ridge was thwarted by locals and environmental groups with support from the federal government.

“What turned that situation in a favorable direction was just how people really united against that project,” said Moser noting that SELC is focused on litigation efforts to get the Navigable Waters Protection Rule vacated. “The big question will be whether the federal government and the state government will step in and help our efforts," she said.