Credit: Photo courtesy Georgia River Network
Georgia faith leaders appeal to officials to spare 'sacred' Okefenokee from mine
A group of more than 100 faith leaders in Georgia have come out in opposition to a proposal to mine near the Okefenokee Swamp and are calling on religious-minded state and local decision makers to reject any plans to mine close to the swamp.
Dozens of faith leaders, including Christian ministers, rabbis and imams, added their name to a letter on its way to the governor, the state’s U.S. senators and local county commissioners. The Charlton County Commission’s chair and vice chairwoman are ministers.
The Rev. Tony Lankford, who is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville and a Georgia native, said he signed onto the letter after the swamp left a deep impression on him about a year ago when he took his son on an overnight camping trip.
“It is such a unique part of our state,” Lankford said. “There was just something in me when I got back from that trip — that we need to protect this to the extent that we can, that capitalism cannot drive the Okefenokee Swamp. There has to be more to it and with a preservation mindset so that my son can take his son and my grandson can take his son and have this same experience.”
The allure of new jobs in a rural corner of the state has won over supporters hoping for an economic boost. But the project is controversial, with Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals planning to mine for titanium dioxide along the edge of the wildlife refuge.
Environmentalists have panned the proposal as a needless threat to a prized natural wonder home to more than 600 plant species as well as rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks — features that have made the gator-filled area a tourist destination for wildlife lovers.
The Georgia faith leaders now want to add their voice to those calling for the state to reject the proposal. A representative from Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, which is a faith-based group that coordinated the letter, plans to deliver the letter to the Charlton County Commission and read it aloud during the public comment portion of Thursday’s commission meeting in Folkston.
The letter refers to the Okefenokee Swamp as “a uniquely holy and sacred space.”
From the letter: “As people of faith, our values call us to seek justice for our neighbors and care for the Earth. The proposed desecration of the Okefenokee Swamp cannot be permitted. Our faith inspires us to boldly proclaim our opposition to this project as we advocate for just policies and practices that allow for all of Creation to thrive.”
The company unveiled its plans more than two years ago and is still in the process of acquiring the state permits needed from the state Environmental Protection Division to move forward. The company submitted additional information to EPD last month that is currently under review.
“After the review is complete, EPD will determine if further comments are needed,” Kevin Chambers, the division’s spokesman, said Wednesday.
The company wants to start out by conducting a mining demonstration along Trail Ridge, which is a hydrological divide between the swamp and St. Marys River. But it has signaled aspirations of a much larger footprint near the largest U.S. wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.
Codi Norred, executive director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, said the group is trying to highlight the moral responsibility of being good stewards of God’s handiwork.
“It truly is one of the most uniquely wild places that exists,” said Norred, reflecting on an overnight paddling trip from a few years ago. “It’s like being transported into how God might have made creation before humans were around. It’s a holy place.”
Most of the elected leaders surrounding the project — including the governor, who said in April that he was going to stay neutral and “let the process play out” — are outspoken about their faith, Norred noted.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is a pastor, and Sen. Jon Ossoff, who is the state’s first Jewish senator, pressed for greater scrutiny of the proposal earlier this year.
Norred said he is disappointed that his group’s attempts to reach out to the ministers on the local county commission ahead of Thursday’s meeting have gone nowhere.
“It’s the people of faith who occupy all of the positions who could do anything to stop this mine and are complicit until they do something,” he said, calling the mining proposal a “blemish on creation.”
“If you are any person of faith of any tradition that has a commitment to creation, do whatever you can to call whoever you can in the decision-making process and ask them as a person of faith to think about not doing this,” he said.
Charlton Chairman James Everett did not return a call seeking comment. Vice Chairwoman Alphya Benefield declined to comment when reached Tuesday afternoon. Both are pastors.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.