By Hannah E. Jones

Eighty-three years ago, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Today, about 94 percent of the swamp and some surrounding pine forests are protected, but other areas are still left vulnerable to outside influences — like nearby mining proposals. If the plans are approved, conservationists agree that it could have devastating impacts on the swamp and connected waterways.

The Twin Pines mine site. (Photo by Corwyn O’Neil Media.)

According to peer-reviewed science presented by Georgia River Network Executive Director Rena Ann Peck and retired Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Biologist Sara Aicher, the mining plans near the swamp could release an inordinate amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

Since 2019, Alabama mining company Twin Pines has sought to mine titanium and zirconium just three miles from the swamp’s edge. If approved, the mining would begin at a one-square-mile section of Trail Ridge, a natural divide between the Okefenokee and St. Marys River.

A map of the impacted area. (Courtesy of the Georgia River Network.)

The new data builds upon research presented by University of Georgia Distinguished Professor C. Rhett Jackson, who found that the mining project would lower the water levels in the area — an estimated three cubic feet per second would be lost in the Okefenokee and St. Marys. In addition to impairing water movement and storage, lower water levels would also increase fire risk, destroy habitats and industrial lighting would degrade the area’s designated Dark Skies

“When people internationally think about Georgia, they think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Okefenokee.”

Rena Ann Peck

Using this information and other relevant studies, Peck and Aicher found that the altered hydrology would result in accelerated carbon emission by exposing the swamp’s peat deposits. Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed organic matter that resembles soil. When exposed, it emits carbon dioxide. 

The swamp has an extensive peat reserve, collecting an estimated 200 million tons over the last 6,500 years. If the top four feet are exposed to oxidation or fire, 28 million tons of carbon dioxide could be released over time — the equivalent of about one-fourth of Georgia’s annual emissions.

“The fires would be out of the range of … a useful fire regime because, normally, the fire would run across the surface and not deep down into it,” Peck said. “If you have four feet of peat that is dried, you’re going to have a much deeper, more severe, longer-lasting, harder-to-control fire.”

While conservationists agree that the swamp needs protections — and fast — there’s still ambiguity over the permitting process. 

The Okefenokee is a unique ecosystem with around 424 animal species and 620 types of plants. (Photo courtesy of the Georgia River Network.)

In March, the Biden administration implemented the new “Waters of the United States” rule (WOTUS) that reinstated federal Clean Water Act (CWA) protections. However, under former President Trump’s now-vacated “Navigational Waters Protection Rule,” the proposed mining area lost federal protections, meaning Twin Pines only needs to go through the state permitting process. But under WOTUS, the mining company would need to also go through the federal government, which has a more robust permitting process than Georgia does.

“Wetlands are critically important for keeping Georgia’s rivers — our drinking water sources and our recreational waters — clean,” Peck said. “Wetlands are the kidneys of our river systems and without them, our rivers end up on life support.”

Additionally, the Supreme Court recently made its decision in the ongoing Sackett v. EPA case. The Sacketts are Idaho landowners who engaged in a fourteen-year legal battle over their parcel of land near Priest Lake, which was protected under the CWA. Rather than obtaining a permit to build a lakehouse, the Sacketts sued — and the Supreme Court sided with the couple.

“The Sackett decision drastically cuts back the Clean Water Act’s protections for critical wetlands and other waterways that shield families and communities across Georgia and the nation from pollution and damaging floods,” Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Megan Huynh wrote in an email to SaportaReport.

Huynh continued: “It is too soon to tell what the Sackett decision means on the ground for the proposed Twin Pines mine, but the proposed mine’s potential impacts on the Okefenokee show why the scope of the Clean Water Act matters so much. Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t have wetland protections that compare to the federal Clean Water Act protections. As a result, it’s more important than ever for the state to step up and fulfill its obligations under the Georgia Surface Mining Act and deny the requested state permits.”

Georgia River Network Board President Lynn McIntyre also sees the Okefenokee as a symbol for the overarching need to further protect our state and nation’s waterways. 

“We’re fighting for clean water as much as we’re fighting for the Okefenokee,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre added: “The Okefenokee is still pretty well intact, and we have a chance to save it before it’s ruined.”

The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. (Photo courtesy of the Georgia River Network.)

In light of the new data, Peck and Aicher recommend establishing a “protective buffer” around the swamp. Using government and philanthropic funds, this could include purchasing nearby properties or offering conservation easements to landowners who agree to retire mining rights. 

Peck and McIntyre also have hope that mining prospects will be blocked through HB 71, the Okefenokee Protection Act. Proposed by Georgia State Representative Darlene Taylor in January, the bill had 91 co-signers but didn’t go to a vote before Crossover Day in March. However, it can still be considered next year.

Folks who want to advocate for protecting the Okefenokee Swamp can text “SWAMP” to 52886. From there, they can send a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Governor Kemp and state representatives. For additional information about the proposal and timeline, click here.

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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1 Comment

  1. Is it really this difficult to stop the destruction of a National Treasure? If it’s really this important to Twin Pines, let them screw up something in Alabama

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