Okefenokee Swamp: Proposed sand mine may have national security implications

By David Pendered

The proposal to mine sand near the Okefenokee Swamp could involve matters of national security. Products created with components in the sand are used in military aircraft, satellites, missiles and munitions, and naval vessels. The U.S. now imports almost 100 percent of the material and the top two sources are Japan and Russia; the Commerce Department is conducting a security analysis.

The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest black water swamp in North America. A proposed mine to the south of the swamp would produce mineral sands that have military and industrial uses. Credit:By pseabolt, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49600367

The heavy mineral sands the company wants to extract are used to create titanium. Titanium has widespread military, industrial and commercial uses. It performs well in military applications because heat doesn’t affect it much; it’s a nontoxic material that has replaced toxic lead to create pigment for paint.

This proposed mine has prompted environmental advocates to mobilize against the application submitted by Twin Pines Minerals, LLC. Several advocates from the Atlanta area and Northeast Georgia say they plan to attend meetings scheduled in Folkston on Tuesday and Wednesday in St. Mary’s. The host is Twin Pines Minerals – a company established in 2013 in Delaware, where ownership is shielded by the state’s business privacy laws.

The proposed mine has been under review for just over a year.

On Aug. 7, 2018 representatives of Twin Pines Minerals met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to unveil the plan to mine titanium south of the swamp. The plan envisions a mine of about 12,000 acres, with sand to be extracted in phases starting with a 2,414-acre site. The pace of extraction is to be from 20 acres to 40 acres a month, according to the public notice of a comment period that now extends to Sept. 12.

Following the meeting with Twin Pines Minerals, the corps accepted written comments on the proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the public notice.

The corps issued on Dec. 18, 2018 an Aquatic Resource Delineation Concurrence letter on two portions of the site proposed for the mining operation. The letter means the corps concurs with the aquatic boundaries represented on the property by Twin Pines Minerals. On July 12, the corps and state of Georgia issued a joint notice of Twin Pines Minerals’ application, triggering the current public conversation.

Titanium coats the exterior of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, creating an interplay of light outside the building in Spain designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Credit: wikimedia.com

According to the mining application, the U.S. now imports 91 percent of needed titanium mineral concentrates. President Trump’s administration is reviewing the national security implications of importing titanium.

The Commerce Department initiated in March an investigation into whether national security is threatened by the “quantity or circumstances” of the import of one stage of the material, called titanium sponge, according to a Commerce Department statement. The Department of Defense supports the investigation.

This is the at least the second such investigation into titanium imports in recent years. both investigations were initiated after complaints were filed by Titanium Metals Corp.

In 2017, the U.S. International Trade Commission voted to end a complaint filed by TMC over titanium imports. That complaint contended two countries were dumping material into the United States, with Kazakhstan allegedly subsidizing prices of titanium exported to the U.S. by Japan and Kazakhstan.

The issue of potential national security also suggests the review of the mining proposal may involve issues more complex than they may appear on the face – dig or don’t dig next to a primeval swamp.

Standard language in the public notice observes the corps will consider a host of issues in making its determination:

  • “The decision whether to issue a permit will be based on an evaluation of the probable impact including cumulative impacts of the proposed activity on the public interest. That decision will reflect the national concern for both protection and utilization of important resources. The benefit, which reasonably may be expected to accrue from the proposal, must be balanced against its reasonably foreseeable detriments.”

Materials in the F-22 are comprised of 39 percent titanium. President Trump has allocated nearly $1 billion to modernize the nation’s fleet of F-22 aircraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker

A fair amount of discussion among environmental advocates has involved the use of the mined mineral sands for pigments to color paint and coatings. These uses are cited in the public notice, along with a recitation of other military and industrial uses:

  • “Mineral sand-derived products, particularly those containing titanium dioxide and zirconium, are in high demand worldwide in the pigment, aerospace, medical, foundry, and other industrial products. Elemental components, chiefly titanium, are used as the white pigments. Titanium dioxide is nontoxic and has replaced lead as the predominant pigment in paints and coatings.”

The most recent proposal to mine titanium dioxide from the Okefenokee Swamp, in 1997, was described in terms of using the material for its coloring properties. Now, the titanium dioxide that Twin Pine Minerals plans to extract includes a reference to its use as the building block of titanium. Two observations from a report in 2016 by the University of York (England) observe:

  • “Most titanium is manufactured from ores containing titanium dioxide using a lengthy four-stage process….
  • “Research in Cambridge (UK) has led to the development of an electrolytic method for reducing titanium dioxide directly to titanium. … The process is much simpler than existing methods, operating at lower temperatures (saving energy costs), and has a lower environmental impact.  It has the potential to reduce the production costs significantly, making it possible for the advantages of titanium metal to be applied to a wider range of end-products.”

Twin Pines Minerals, LLC has filed an application to mine heavy mineral sands from the region inside the pink rectangle. The deadline for public comment is Sept. 12. Credit: usace.army.mil

The mining application was filed by the company’s office in Birmingham, Ala., where state records show it was formed in 2013 and lists its home office as Delaware. Twin Pines Minerals filed for incorporation in Florida in 2014 and records show it listed Delaware as its home office. Twin Pines Minerals filed for incorporation in Georgia on May 11, 2018 and state records show it listed Delaware as the home office.

Of note, titanium already is a cash product for Georgia’s ports.

The Port of Savannah is the No. 9 gateway for titanium into the United States. Savannah accounts for 3 percent of the value of titanium imported, at $14.25 million of the $473.62 million imported to the U.S. from Jan. 1 through June, according to an analysis of Census data by the trade site ustradenumbers.com.

Titanium is imported through four other East Coast seaports – Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston. Three seaports and the Los Angeles airport on the West Coast, and New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico, round out the Top 10 gateways.

 

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. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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