Georgia draft permits released for controversial mine planned near Okefenokee

Opponents say mining risks irreparable damage to the refuge, home to North America’s largest blackwater swamp

Georgia environmental regulators released draft permits Friday for a titanium mine planned less than three miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, putting the controversial project one step closer to becoming reality.

The guidelines for air quality, groundwater extraction and surface mining for the strip mine are not final, and the public will have a chance to comment on the terms. Still, their release marks a major inflection point in the fight over the mine, which environmentalists have said risks irreparable damage to North America’s largest blackwater swamp and one of Georgia’s ecological gems.

The company behind the project, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, wants to extract titanium and zirconium from a 584-acre tract on the east flank of the Okefenokee. Titanium alloys can be used in aircraft and weapons systems, but their most common use is in titanium dioxide, a whitening compound used in toothpaste, sunscreen, paint and other household products.

In a statement, Twin Pines president Steve Ingle said he was pleased with the state Environmental Protection Division’s decision to release the draft permits.

“The exhaustive hydrology, geology, biology and herpetology studies, as we have said all along, have been validated,” Ingle said. “We expect stringent government oversight of our mining-to-reclamation project, which will be fully protective of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge and the region’s environment.”

But the draft permits’ publication drew swift rebuke from environmentalists, who — citing the expert opinions of prominent hydrologists — say allowing the company to mine near the swamp could lower water levels and put the Okefenokee at greater risk of wildfires, imperiling wildlife.

As it moves across the site, Twin Pines’ mining pit will be 500 feet wide by 100 feet long and 50 feet deep. The company plans to pump 1.44 million gallons of groundwater a day from the underlying aquifer, but says it will not discharge any wastewater. Instead, the company says it will use massive evaporators to send its wastewater skyward as steam.

Georgia's world-famous wetland, the Okefenokee Swamp, is shown in this file photo. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Charles Seabrook

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Credit: Charles Seabrook

The Okefenokee is home to 430,000 acres of unspoiled wetlands, thousands of species of plants and animals, and millions of tons of carbon-rich peat. Just last year, the National Park Service announced it is preparing to nominate the Okefenokee for listing as a World Heritage Site, a prestigious honor reserved for sites with universal value, like Peru’s Machu Picchu and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

“This is a dark day in Georgia’s history,” said Josh Marks, an Atlanta attorney who has opposed efforts to mine near the Okefenokee for decades. “EPD may have signed a death warrant for the Okefenokee Swamp ...”

Bill Sapp, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement that Twin Pines has failed to prove their mine won’t harm the swamp.

“This mine would be an unacceptable and unnecessary risk to the Okefenokee, endanger wildlife that call it home, and threaten livelihoods of Georgians who depend on it,” Sapp said.

An EPD spokesperson declined to comment on the critiques.

The release of draft permits comes as lawmakers and mine opponents are pushing a bill in the General Assembly that would block future mining near the swamp.

House Bill 71 would not block what Twin Pines calls its “demonstration” mine. But if passed, it would prevent the project from expanding and prevent new mining along most of Trail Ridge, the ancient sand dune formation that borders the Okefenokee.

Just over a year ago, EPD released Twin Pines’ mining plans to the public for the first time. The agency received more than 77,000 comments during the ensuing 60-day public comment period, with the overwhelming majority in opposition to the mine.

Starting Friday, the public will have half as long — 30 days — to comment on the draft permits.

EPD announced Friday it will host a virtual public meeting on the permits at 6 p.m. on March 5 on the video conferencing platform, Zoom. Members of the public can also weigh in by writing to the agency at Land Protection Branch, 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport- Suite 104, Atlanta, Georgia 30354, or by emailing twinpines.comment@dnr.ga.gov.

After the 30-day period has passed, the agency said it would review all comments, make any necessary changes and make a recommendation to EPD Director Jeff Cown to issue or deny the final permits.

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