Chip Campbell has been paddling the swamp at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge since he was a young boy and his dad would take him to indulge his passion for alligators. Twenty years ago, he and his wife settled in for good as proprietors of Okefenokee Adventures, through which he shares his wonder of the nation’s largest blackwater swamp with visitors from around the world.
“I love the swamp. I love this river. I love this area, warts and all,” said Campbell, 60. “It provides one of the superlative wilderness experiences of anywhere. It is really extraordinary.”
But the pristine swamp is also attractive for its reserves of titanium, the naturally occurring mineral, used in everything from paint to cosmetics. It can be found in thin black layers deep inside Trail Ridge, the sandy bank that stretches along the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
In Charlton County, just above the Florida border, where mineral resources have been coveted since they were first mined on a large scale in 1952, stories of the push and pull between environmentalists and mining operations are told as a parable of biblical proportions. Now, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals wants to start a mining operation on 12,000 acres just south of the Okefenokee, and locals are worried it could harm the wildlife and water in the area that has become an attraction for about 600,000 visitors each year. The company is seeking approval for the first phase of mining, a process that could take many months.
Trail Ridge’s soil is composed of distinct layers and environmental advocates are concerned that removing minerals from deep inside those layers could reduce the water levels of the swamp. The change in the composition of the soil could also make Trail Ridge a less hospitable habitat for certain wildlife.
For many locals, the latest talk of mining has dredged up the 20-year-old memory of DuPont Co.’s thwarted attempt to mine 38,000 acres along Trail Ridge. The company dropped those plans and donated 16,000 acres to preservationists after protests from state and national officials, environmental groups and the public.
“DuPont left a legacy and we have had to deal with it in every environmental discussion we have had in this area,” said Campbell, who also serves on the board of St. Marys Riverkeeper. “We are looking at the science and parsing the permits and trying to grapple with the big question, does this mine pose an existential threat to the Okefenokee Swamp?”
New methods, old concerns
Residents of Charlton County have made it clear their concerns go beyond the operations of any one company. “It’s not, ‘Here they come again threatening our precious Okefenokee Swamp,’” said Campbell. “For those of us who are here, this is part of a larger discussion about mineral sand mining and the ecological impact it has on rivers and wetlands and the economic integrity of the region.”
Running north from Starke, Florida, to just southwest of Jesup, Trail Ridge is a geological structure formed almost 250,000 years ago. It may have once been a barrier island but now serves as the boundary of the swamp. The area is home to hundreds of species of animals and birds and more than 60 kinds of reptiles.
For decades, titanium mining companies have pulled up to areas near Trail Ridge, extracted what they need to satisfy the $30 billion per year titanium dioxide pigment industry, and moved on.
More than a year ago, Twin Pines Minerals began buying multimillion-dollar parcels of land near the south end of Trail Ridge and conducting its own environmental studies on water and wildlife. The company made a point of engaging a range of environmental organizations, said Steve Ingle, Twin Pines’ president.
But a preliminary proposal at the time raised some concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency suggested the work plan lacked significant details about the impact on groundwater and how that would be measured.
In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service questioned how mining might impact the water levels of the swamp and possibly the St. Marys River. The agency also questioned if the removal of minerals from the soil would affect the habitat of threatened species like the gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snake that live on Trail Ridge. “We have concerns that the proposed project poses substantial risks for significant affect to the environment,” said the redacted memo. “Should impacts occur they may not be able to be reversed, repaired or mitigated for.”
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Ingle said Twin Pines considered all of those comments in developing a proposal filed in July with the Army Corps of Engineers. The document outlines the first phase of mining on about 2,400 acres located 4 miles from Okefenokee.
Unlike some mining methods that use equipment in water to mine large pits, Twin Pines would use earth-moving machines to scoop 500-foot-by-100-foot areas at an average depth of 50 feet. After minerals are extracted, the remaining material is redeposited into the ground, covered with topsoil and the area is replanted.
The process would have temporary impacts on wetlands and tributaries as well as impacts from the equipment and offices that would need to be erected on some parts of the land, according to the company’s proposal.
Looking at the long term
Should Twin Pines continue to move north along Trial Ridge as expected, mining operations could come right up to the edge of the Okefenokee, a possibility that environmental advocates say they can’t ignore.
At a recent meeting in Atlanta hosted by the Georgia Conservancy, citizen concerns echoed the early questions posed by government agencies.
“We are not against all mining, but we have concerns with this one,” said Charles McMillan, coastal director of the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental advocacy organization. “We don’t have to solve the problem. We are here to outline the unknowns.”
Ingle believes his company can not only demonstrate that its operations will not harm the Okefenokee, but will provide jobs in an area that could use an economic boost.
Folkston is the center of commerce in Charlton County, but it’s in decline. From 2012 to 2017, the population decreased by a quarter. Nearly one in five households earn an annual income of less than $10,000. For centuries, the county has been largely dependent on timber. Recent headlines have highlighted problems of its other major industries — coal ash dumping at Chesser Island Landfill and inmate brawls at the privately owned correctional facility.
“Our economic development does not tend to be driven by postmodern knowledge-based industries,” said Campbell of Okefenokee Adventures.
Ingle said more than 200 jobs ranging from skilled labor to professional roles will include a solid benefits package and salaries up to $20 per hour.
But finding the right balance is tough, and many residents have said the whole process for evaluating the pros and cons of yet another sand mining operation requires more time and consideration than it has been given.
“Before moving forward with this application, it is critically important that Twin Pines, the corps and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division conduct more thorough studies to ensure that any mining activities would not result in harm to this special, world-renowned place,” said Megan Hinkle Huynh, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has used legal challenges to support the environment in the region.
Twin Pines is hosting two information sessions in mid-August, and already, the Army Corps of Engineers has extended the deadline for public comment to Sept. 12. McMillan urged concerned citizens to request an Environmental Impact Statement, the highest level of analysis available when a proposed federal action may significantly affect the quality of the human environment.
“I know it is old school of me to rely on and focus on the science, but that is really where we are,” Campbell said. “If there is a chance that this is going to harm the Okefenokee Swamp, I believe the truth will bear out.”
INTERACTIVE MAP OF THE PROPOSED MINING LOCATION