South Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp — the largest blackwater swamp in North America — is one of the last true wildernesses left in the country. That wilderness has been at-risk for quite some time due to mining, but a recent federal decision might help preserve the swamp for generations to come.
The swamp lost federal protections under the Trump Administration, so when mining company Twin Pines Minerals submitted its initial plans in 2019 to mine within three miles of the swamp, the decision-making process was left to the state, where it’s been in limbo ever since.
Now, at the urging of Senator Jon Ossoff and other local advocates, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stepped in to reinstate the necessity for their approval process, meaning the company will have to reapply and undergo a lengthy federal review — followed by the state review — to acquire the necessary permitting.
Additionally, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was not consulted during the planning process, despite asking to be involved. In January, President Joe Biden requested that tribal communities be consulted regarding policies that impact them. The Muscogee lived around the Okefenokee until the mid-20th century, and the area holds great cultural significance.
Twin Pines intends to move forward with their application, according to a statement released by President Steve Ingle, adding that the company feels their goal of mining rare earth minerals domestically will decrease the country’s reliance on other countries to source these materials.
“We can mine titanium safely and without harming the Okefenokee or cultural resources in any way,” Ingle wrote. “All dragline mining will occur at elevations above the highest water level of the swamp and approximately three miles from the nearest boundary of the refuge. More than just an altruistic desire to assure the swamp and cultural resources are safeguarded, it is just good business, and we wouldn’t be investing millions of dollars in the permitting process if we weren’t certain of our abilities to achieve those objectives.”
Under Twin Pines’ proposal, mining would begin at a one-square-mile section of Trail Ridge, a natural divide between the swamp and St. Marys River in Charlton County. The company seeks to extract titanium oxide, commonly used as a white pigment for materials like paint, plastic or food coloring.
The plans would have a negative impact on the swamp and its unique ecosystem, impairing water movement and storage at the swamp, explained Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network and member of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance.
Lower water levels would also increase fire risk, destroy habitats and industrial lighting would degrade the area’s designated Dark Skies.
“An estimated three cubic feet per second would be lost to the Okefenokee and St. Marys,” Peck said. “That ends up being 2.7 billion liters of water lost each year — drying up the water trails, affecting threatened and endangered species habitats, and the whole ecosystem.”
Other local experts have also raised the alarm bells, with 45 Georgia scientists penning a letter of concern.
Now that the federal government is involved, Twin Pines will need approval from both the federal and state level, which would likely include an environmental impact statement (EIS) outlining the effects the proposal would have on the surrounding area.
“Earlier application materials seemed like Twin Pines was indicating that an environmental impact statement would be a project killer,” Peck said. “An EIS costs a lot of money and requires a lot of spending on environmental investigations. I don’t think there’s any assurance that it would lead to a permit. I think we’re in a pretty good place with Twin Pines’ permitting process flopping, but we have to remain diligent.”
Okefenokee Swamp Park Executive Director Kim Bednarek shares a similar sentiment, adding that now is the time to amplify the importance of other sources of revenue for the region — ecotourism.
Bednarek is heading a new initiative called The Okefenokee Experience, a tri-county effort to bring attention to the region’s unique natural attractions and cultural history with a Natural History and Ecology Interpretive Center, a Cultural History Museum and a Dark Sky Observatory.
“There’s a big need in the region for a mosaic of economic development opportunities and The Okefenokee Experience is one of them,” Bednarek said. “Permitting has gone back into the hands of the federal government because consultation did not occur with the Muscogee Nation, and this really lent credibility to the idea of how important it is to have all voices heard in the Okefenokee.”
While local environmental advocates are celebrating the decision, they know the fight isn’t over. Peck is hopeful that the Okefenokee Protection Act will be passed in the next legislative session, banning all mining from Trail Ridge next to the swamp.
“It’s not just about Twin Pines being a bad actor. This is about mining in general on Trail Ridge [next to the swamp],” Peck said. “If the Georgia legislature can protect the Okefenokee by banning mining on Trail Ridge, then the [Environmental Protection Division] won’t have to keep dealing with this; the local community won’t have to keep dealing with this.
She continued: “It’s up to our state to protect [the swamp]. It’s great to take a crisis and make something good out of it.”
For folks looking to support the cause, Peck encourages residents to reach out to their legislators to advocate for environmental protections at the Okefenokee’s Trail Ridge.