Speakers at public comment session overwhelmingly oppose mining plans near Okefenokee Swamp
By Hannah E. Jones
Georgia is home to the largest blackwater swamp in North America — the Okefenokee. In addition to its ecological value, the swamp also attracts over 600,000 visitors a year, generating $64.7 million in the four surrounding counties. But that could all be in jeopardy if a proposal to mine less than three miles from the swamp’s edge is approved.
And it would appear many are unhappy about that.
Last week, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) held two public meetings for residents to give their input on Twin Pines Minerals’ plans to mine on the doorstep of the Okefenokee Swamp. Attendees overwhelmingly opposed the plans, and during the combined five hours of meetings, only one person — a representative of the Georgia Mining Association — spoke in favor of Twin Pines.
The virtual meetings were held during a 60-day public comment period, a requirement for the Alabama mining company to obtain a permit for its Mining Land Use Plan. Under the proposal, Twin Pines would be able to mine 582 acres along Trail Ridge, a hydrological divide between the swamp and St. Marys River.
“Authorizing a mining company to dig down into the very geological feature that protects this delicate and irreplaceable refuge, makes about as much sense as drilling a hole in the bottom of your own canoe,” Elise Bennett, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said during the meeting. “The EPD should recognize the Okefenokee’s importance as a refuge of wilderness for imperiled species and deny the permit application for the mine, which is an existential threat to the refuge.”
Twin Pines maintains that the “proposed mine poses no risk to the environment,” as stated on its website, adding, “the land will be restored to its original contours and native vegetation after heavy minerals are removed.” Many environmental experts disagree, pointing to the potential cascading effects of the mining.
According to 2022 research released by C. Rhett Jackson, a professor of Water Resources at the University of Georgia, an estimated three cubic feet per second would be lost to the Okefenokee and St. Marys — 2.7 billion liters each year. Lower water levels would increase fire risk and destroy habitats. The industrial lighting would also degrade the area’s designated Dark Skies, which is key for ecotourism and maintaining healthy ecosystems.
The mining company is seeking titanium and zirconium. It’s worth noting that titanium is the ninth most abundant element on Earth, something that Rena Ann Peck, Georgia River Network’s executive director, feels should be taken into consideration.
“We oppose the issuance of this permit as we believe the operation will set off a series of negative impacts to wildlife habitat and human use and enjoyment of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding lands,” Peck wrote to SaportaReport. “Our state government should not be party to risking one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders to obtain common minerals that can be obtained more safely at other locales, just to benefit Twin Pines while putting at risk the outdoor recreation economy that supplies [750-plus] jobs.”
There has been a lot of legal ambiguity surrounding the swamp and the jurisdictions it falls under. While the Okefenokee is currently protected under the Biden admin’s new “Waters of the United States Rule,” it was previously left vulnerable by former President Trump’s “Navigational Waters Protection Rule.” When the federal government tried stepping in following the replacement of Trump’s rule, Twin Pines filed a lawsuit and the Army Corps of Engineers later settled by relinquishing oversight on the project.
That leaves the decision in the hands of the Georgia EPD, a move that is highly contested by many environmental experts.
“If Twin Pines goes out and fills the wetlands next to the Okefenokee without a federal permit, they will be liable under the Clean Water Act,” Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Megan Huynh told SaportaReport in a previous interview. “The bottom line, as we see it, is that Twin Pines shouldn’t be permitted to fill wetlands that everybody agrees are currently protected by the Clean Water Act, especially when doing so would put one of our country’s greatest natural resources at risk.”
In January, Georgia State Representative Darlene Taylor proposed the Okefenokee Protection Act HB 71 which, if passed, would prohibit the Georgia EPD Director from issuing permits to conduct mining operations on Trail Ridge. To be considered in this session, the bill must go to a vote before Crossover Day on March 6.
Public comment is open until March 20, and folks can submit their input by emailing email@example.com. Residents can also send their comments by mail using this address: Land Protection Branch, 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport, Suite 104, Atlanta, Georgia 30354. Click here for an in-depth look at the proposal.
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