U.S. Army Corps sued over controversial Okefenokee mining project

Conservation groups argue Corps illegally cleared the mine from federal oversight

Four conservation groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court Tuesday for removing itself from reviewing the environmental impact of a mine planned near the Okefenokee Swamp — placing the permitting for the project back in the hands of state environmental regulators.

The lawsuit is the latest development in a dizzying saga that has seen oversight of the mine juggled back and forth between the Corps and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division across two White House administrations.

The suit was filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in the D.C. Circuit of U.S. District Court on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The complaint names the Corps of Engineers and the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Michael Connor, whose office oversees the Corps.

Twin Pines Minerals LLC is not a named defendant in the case, but its proposed mining project is at the center of the case. The Alabama-based company has sought for years to extract titanium from an ancient sand dune complex that runs along the eastern edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The Okefenokee is the largest federal wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River and is home to thousands of species, including 40 species of mammals, more than 200 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles, and more than 600 plant species. Environmental experts have long warned that mining near the swamp could lower water levels and risk permanent damage to the fragile ecosystem.

In 2020, the Corps determined that the Twin Pines project was not subject to its oversight, a decision that placed its fate solely in the hands of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

That decision was made based on a Trump-era rule that stripped protections from many waterways, including some wetlands on the proposed mine site. However, the Trump rule was later struck down by a federal judge.

The next twist came in June of this year, when the Corps invalidated its 2020 ruling, which had cleared the project from needing a federal environmental review. That meant the project would have to go through a rigorous review by the Corps — not Georgia EPD — to gain approval.

But that also didn’t last. Twin Pines sued the Corps this summer and less than three months later, the parties announced a settlement, in which the Corps agreed to reinstate its previous decisions and abdicate permitting responsibilities to Georgia EPD once again.

The complaint filed Tuesday takes issue with that move by the Corps, which the plaintiffs claim was “arbitrary, capricious” and violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a law governing the issuance of federal regulations.

In a statement, SELC senior attorney Megan Huynh said the Corps’ decision to return permit oversight to the state endangers the swamp.

“Not only are the at-risk wetlands valuable in their own right, but they are important to the health of the irreplaceable Okefenokee Swamp,” Huynh said. “To comply with the Clean Water Act, the Corps must require Twin Pines to obtain a federal permit and complete a full environmental review of the mining project.”

The plaintiffs are asking the court to vacate the Corps’ earlier ruling that the project does not need a federal environmental impact assessment.

Cheri Pritchard, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, referred a request for comment to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). An emailed message sent to DOJ was not immediately returned.

Representatives for Twin Pines declined to comment on the filing.

Georgia EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips said that the agency was aware of the lawsuit but is continuing to evaluate Twin Pines’ permit applications.

“The filing of the lawsuit does not impact the timing of EPD’s review of the Twin Pines permit,” Lips said.