Residents and environmental groups spoke overwhelmingly in opposition this week during a pair of hearings on a controversial mine proposed next to the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is weighing whether to approve a draft land-use plan, the first in a series of regulatory approvals and permits sought by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals. Twin Pines wants to extract titanium and zirconium from the eastern barrier ridge of the swamp up to the border of the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.
Hundreds of speakers at hearings Tuesday and Thursday night pleaded with EPD to say no.
Ellis Wynn said as the son of a Georgia game warden, he has been to the swamp more times than he could count and was shocked to hear the mining proposal had gotten as far as it had.
”It would be like putting a mine next to Yellowstone,” Wynn said. “I can’t really put into words how much I oppose it.”
Twin Pines representatives said the mine will create hundreds of much-needed jobs for the low-income and rural area without harming the swamp. Supporters also say the mine is needed to ensure the nation’s competitiveness for sought-after minerals.
EPD says the operation as currently proposed would require multiple permits from the state, including a water withdrawal permit, an air quality permit and a surface mining permit.
The agency is continuing its review process as several conservation groups pursue a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to yield oversight of the project to the state.
Hundreds of speakers tuned into the virtual hearings to express concern that mining operations would affect the water levels in the swamp and contaminate the area with toxic chemicals and other industrial byproducts. They spoke about the beauty of the swamp’s fragile ecosystem and the role it plays in cultural heritage and tourism, vital pieces of the region’s economy.
The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America and it’s home to thousands of species and carbon-trapping peat deposits.
South Georgia resident Maelyn Belmondo of Blackshear fondly described visiting the swamp as a child and accompanying her own children and their classmates on field trips there.
“I have seen first hand the look on their faces when they experience the swamp, some of them, for the very first time... it is truly awesome,” she said. “I oppose the Twin Pines mining operation proposal because of the impacts it will likely have in the future for both me and my children and for this iconic natural resource.”
Some commenters pointed to what they described as a pattern of environmental violations by Twin Pines and its affiliates or executives.
In response to a request for comment on concerns over Twin Pines’ plans and track record, company president Steve Ingle said the groups opposing the project assume “without evidence” that it will hurt the Okefenokee Swamp.
“Any objective analysis will show that our project poses no risk to the swamp or the surrounding environment,” he said.
Environmental experts and advocates who spoke took issue with EPD for what they claimed was a faulty analysis of potential impacts to the swamp’s water levels.
Eleven hydrologists from southeastern universities, including the University of Georgia, Duke and Virginia Tech, signed a letter to EPD this week objecting to the agency’s decision to use a downstream water monitoring station for the environmental assessment when another station closer to the swamp would be more appropriate, they said.
“This would be like going to a doctor for a shoulder sprain, the doctor instead examines your ankle and declares your shoulder to be fine,” said Joshua Marks, an attorney and president of Georgians for the Okefenokee.
Rhett Jackson, a hydrologist from UGA who signed the letter, said the proposal calls for removing 1.13 million gallons of water a day from the mining area.
“If we remove that amount of water ... it basically triples the amount, triples the frequency of severe drought in the southeast portion of the swamp,” said Jackson. “That’s too much.”
Michael O’Reilly, director of policy for the Nature Conservancy Georgia, said Twin Pines’ water level study was not peer reviewed.
“Other analyses have indicated that the mining will lead to significant dewatering effects on the Okefenokee Swamp with detrimental impacts, including increased vulnerability to drought and fires in the region,” he said.
UGA hydrologists' letter to Georgia EPD by Zachary Hansen on Scribd
On Thursday, a single attendee spoke in favor of the mine.
Lee Lemke, executive vice president of the Georgia Mining Association, argued for the importance of mining titanium and zirconium, which are used in a variety of products.
“If we cannot develop these resources that are available to us in the United States, we will be handing our fiercest international competitors the rope to throttle us with,” Lemke said.
EPD will continue accepting written public comments at email@example.com until March 20, 2023.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers, meanwhile, have introduced legislation to limit mining near the swamp.
The Okefenokee Protection Act was introduced in the Georgia House but has not moved since it was assigned to the Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Everyday I get multiple emails about protecting the Okefenokee. HB71 was introduced earlier in the session but it hasn’t moved. *You* can help! Ask your state reps to sign on to the bill and submit comments to also address Twin Pines attempting to mine in Okefenokee #GAPol https://t.co/VN8agXJyez— Rep. Ruwa Romman (@Ruwa4Georgia) February 24, 2023
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