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David Pendered Columns

Extracting natural resources from natural wonders: Okefenokee Swamp, Pamlico River

David Pendered

By David Pendered

AURORA, N.C. – The world’s largest phosphate mine and chemical plant operates in the nation’s largest lagoonal estuary. This area in eastern North Carolina bears watching as Georgia officials review a proposal to mine sand from the edge of the nation’s largest blackwater swamp – Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.

The phosphate mine and chemical plant, on the shore of the Pamlico River in North Carolina, has become the world’s largest facility of its type. Credit: Courtesy of Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper

Environmentalists in Georgia recognize that the demonstration sand mine proposed by Twin Mines Minerals, on a site at the edge of the swamp, could become Georgia’s version of the phosphate mine in North Carolina – an extraction industry that arrived in a remote area, and remained.

“We believe [the proposed mine is] a camel that EPD should keep out of the Okefenokee’s tent,” Rena Ann Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, wrote in an email Monday, referring to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The two natural wonders share similarities.

The proposed sand mine borders a swamp that’s home to a “diversity of amphibians and reptiles, mammals, birds, fishes, and invertebrates and perhaps as many as 1,000 species of moths,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Comparable peat bogs exist but, unlike the Okefenokee, these bogs have been more impacted by human activity in Scotland, New Zealand and Indonesia.

phosphate, titanium locator map

A proposed sand extraction mine near the Okefenokee Swamp is about 500 miles southwest of a phosphate plant in Aurora, N.C. Credit: GoogleEarth, David Pendered

The phosphate plant along the south shore of the Pamlico River is located in the sensitive Albemarle-Pamlico system. This system of wetlands, creeks and rivers is a part-time home for more than 70% of the fish species hunted for food or recreation along the entire Atlantic seaboard, according to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This part of eastern North Carolina is rural country. Too inaccessible from the Outer Banks’ tourist retreats to be popular with crowds from Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Too sparsely developed to attract in-state vacationers. A difficult trip south from the waterfowl hunting destinations on the Albemarle–Pamlico Peninsula. Aurora is so remote the state runs a ferry to help workers commute to and from the sparsely populated north side of the Pamlico River.

The phosphate mine has expanded since the first phosphate was shipped in 1965. The mine is an engineering marvel described warmly by the Aurora Mineral Museum. In front of the museum is a mound of earth brought by the mining company for visitors to dig in search of fossils and bones – the source of the soil’s phosphate. The report notes:

The phosphate mine covers much of the peninsula at the Pamlico River and South Creek. Credit: Courtesy of Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper

  • “Major problems complicated the development of the phosphate deposit. Mining the phosphate deposit required operating below sea level near an estuary. The phosphate deposit is overlain by much overburden ranging from 70 to 150 feet in thickness and underlain by a major artesian aquifer, known as the Castle Hayne formation. Dr. Miller overcame these problems during test pit mining in 1963 and completing an extensive pumping test project in 1964.”

Today, the operation has grown to the point that it imports from a facility in Augusta one of the raw materials used to process phosphate, according to a 2019 report from Nutrien Ltd.

Of particular note, the phosphate plant in 2000 attempted to begin a significant expansion program. This battle lasted about a decade, and was the most recent time the plant has attracted major attention from environmentalists, according to the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper.

Gypsum Stacks

Stacks of gypsum waste from phosphate plants are an environmental concern. The EPA has banned the material from widespread use. Credit: Courtesy of Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper

The proposed expansion was opposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, during the administration of President George W. Bush. The EPA sided with environmentalists in opposing the expansion. The EPA observed in a report:

  • “Of the 15,100 acre project area, the proposed mine advance would impact approximately 11,454 total acres and result in direct impacts to approximately 3,953 acres of wetlands, 19 acres of open waters and 25,727 linear feet of streams.
  • “This would represent the single largest wetland impact ever authorized under the Clean Water Act in NC and would result in a significant loss of wetlands, streams and other waters of the United States within the nationally significant Albemarle Pamlico Estuary Complex.”

The environmental sensitivity of the region around the phosphate mine in Aurora, N.C. is evident in the nooks and cranies of the Pamlico River, which is part of the nation’s largest lagoonal estuary. Credit: NOAA, David Pendered

A dragline excavator removes overburden from the phosphate that’s to be extracted at the surface mine in Aurora, N.C. Credit: Courtesy of Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper

phosphate excavation

Excavators remove overburden in order to expose the phosphate deposits for extraction. The earliest explorer found the overburden measured from 70 feet to 150 feet above the valuable phosphate. Credit: Courtesy of Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper

Albemarle Pamlico Estuary Complex

The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Complex is comprised of the Albermarle Sound, on the northern portion of the Outer Banks, and the Pamlico Soundl located inland of the main body of the Outer Banks. The phosphate plant is on the Pamlico River, the major tributary to the west of the Pamlico Sound. Credit: Google Earth, David Pendered

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David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Anne Farrisee March 30, 2021 10:24 am

    Okefenokee Swamp is on the World Heritage Tentative Site List:
    https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5252/Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Korgi April 15, 2021 1:44 am

    Wish they’d leave these wonderful places alone, we gonna miss them when they gone.Report

    Reply

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