Georgia Today: State's beloved Okefenokee Swamp at the heart of plan for new titanium dioxide mine
A proposal to mine for titanium dioxide near the state's Okefenokee Swamp is attracting controversy. Alabama company Twin Pines has applied for a permit to extract minerals near the freshwater wetland and wildlife refuge — the largest blackwater wetland in North America — and residents, politicians and environmental advocates are pushing back to protect the Okefenokee.
RELATED: New bill aims to protect Okefenokee Swamp from mining
Mary Landers, Environment reporter, Georgia coastal news site The Current: People who love the Okefenokee are very concerned that it will be detrimental to the water supply, people fear that the hydrology will be changed and there will be unintended consequences for the swamp.
Steve Fennessy: Welcome to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgians know the Okefenokee Swamp as a wildlife refuge and a vacation destination. Well, it turns out the swamp is also home to a mineral that's valuable to industry. And now there's a plan for mining near the freshwater wetland.
[News tape] 11Alive: Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge offers pristine wilderness, preserving the swamp, protecting two rivers and giving hundreds of species sanctuary. But now a new plan would put a titanium mine right next door.
Steve Fennessy: For more, I'm joined by environment reporter Mary Landers from The Current. Welcome, Mary.
Mary Landers: Thanks, Steve. Thank you.
Steve Fennessy: So for those of us who have not been lucky enough to spend any time there, tell us about the Okefenokee. What makes it so special?
Mary Landers: It's a beautiful, beautiful place. So it's the largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi, which is in itself an amazing thing. It's about the size — it's actually bigger than Chatham County, where I'm talking to you from. So I think that's 700 square miles. The fact that it is an intact wetland is amazing as well. So you can go, you can paddle through — it's this beautiful, black, glassy water — that black is from the tannins in the water, just like tannin that makes tea. So it's tea-colored water and it reflects the sky and it reflects the trees, the cypress trees growing in it. I think it's a designated dark sky destination.
[News tape] KTVU: Dark Sky Reserve: a designation only about 20 places on Earth have.
Mary Landers: And so no other sources of light. You can really see the night sky, and it's just spectacular.
[News tape] KTVU: Skies are so dark you can see stars blocked by light nearly everywhere else.
Mary Landers: You're bound to see alligators, which is pretty cool. You're bound to hear them as well at night bellowing to each other. There's something like 12,000 alligators in the swamp.
Steve Fennessy: Wow, you've described an amazing place. A very unique place. What is so significant about it, environmentally?
Mary Landers: The fact that it is an intact freshwater wetland system is amazing. I mean, you think about the Everglades and how important they are and how they have been so disrupted by development down there. The fact that this remains is pretty spectacular. Also underneath the swamp is a huge carbon sink of peat. So peat is decaying plants from thousands and thousands of years of the swamp being there. So it's, you know, tens of feet thick in places and that is holding the carbon production from all of those plants over all of those years.
[News tape] CNN: Known peatlands cover 3% of the Earth's surface, but they store more than twice as much carbon as forests: about 550 billion tons. It takes a thousand years for a meter of peat to actually form.
Steve Fennessy: Who has authority over the park? Is it the state? Is it the federal government?
Mary Landers: It's a national wildlife refuge, so that's federal. The state has a state park that is within the refuge — state managed. There's also Okefenokee Wildlife Park, and that is a nonprofit that similarly leases from the refuge.
Steve Fennessy: So when I'm looking at a map of Georgia and I look at the Okefenokee, there's also something along the eastern border of the swamp, which is called the Trail Ridge.
Mary Landers: It actually was a trail at one point. It's a slightly higher elevation than the land on either side of it. And it was an ancient shoreline. Seas used to be higher, so between 1 and 3 million years ago, that was an ancient beach.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: The water, like time here, almost stands still — a gator sighting not uncommon. But just beyond the swamp is an area rich with minerals that's the center of discussion around the Okefenokee. "It is that Trail Ridge that has concentrated these heavy minerals, but it's also that that same sand ridge that holds the Okefenokee intact and separates us from the St. Mary's River."
Mary Landers: So as the seas moved eastward, that became — what remained was this ridge of sand. There was a trail that Native Americans would use because it was higher, right? So you could get above the land around it, and then colonists used it, too, as a trail.
Steve Fennessy: So in relation to the Okefenokee Swamp, what role does the Trail Ridge play?
Mary Landers: It's valuable to the swamp because it forms that eastern edge of the swamp. I've heard it described as a sill or a dam. That higher elevation, and it is important to the hydrology of this the swamp of keeping — keeping water in the swamp.
Steve Fennessy: And you mentioned that the trail ridge is composed of a — different kinds of sands and minerals. What specifically is attractive to potential mining operations there?
Mary Landers: The mining operations are looking for mainly titanium dioxide, and that is found in a couple of different minerals. So they're really mining for ores, mineral ores, and those laws are refined to get titanium dioxide — which even if you have never heard of it before, you have probably touched something that has titanium dioxide in it today: like your toothpaste, or if you had Altoids after you had coffee, or if you put creamer in your coffee. All of those things probably have titanium dioxide.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: There's industrial uses and as well as the white in paint uses it — and the coloring in this chewing gum.
Mary Landers: It has so many applications. Once you once you start hearing about it, it's one of those things that you don't stop hearing about.
Steve Fennessy: So when we talk about titanium dioxide along the Trail Ridge, is that the only place it is? Or is it if I go to the beach on the Atlantic coast? Is it there too?
Mary Landers: Yes! So I love this. So, anybody who's been on the beach has seen it: that you'll see these stripes of black in the sand, usually near the water. So that's the heavy sands falling out of the water. That's what contains the titanium dioxide, those those grains of sand, those black ones. Now, when they refine it and get the titanium dioxide out, it's actually white. But when you look at it at the beach, you'll see those black bars or stripes. So titanium is an abundant element. So when you find deposits of it, that's what's valuable.
Steve Fennessy: What we're talking today about an application by an Alabama company to mine titanium dioxide along the Trail Ridge, but I understand that there have been efforts by at least another company stretching back 20 years to do the same thing. How has the Trail Ridge titanium dioxide deposits been sort of an attractive thing to to mining operations over the years?
Mary Landers: Twenty-some years ago, DuPont Company came in and DuPont, you know, is a huge mining company. And they wanted to do the same thing, actually on much bigger scale. They wanted to mine all along Trail Ridge. So that got a lot of attention from a lot of people who love the Okefenokee, including some very influential people in the federal government. The secretary of the interior at the time got involved. That was Bruce Babbitt and there were a lot of influential Georgians involved as well. And eventually, DuPont retracted the idea on their own.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: In the 1990s, DuPont purchased thousands of acres with the plan to extract heavy metals from the same sands, even though it is a larger area and they're using a slightly different mining technique. Nevertheless, the impacts would have been similar and at that time, after it was evaluated by different agencies, eventually, DuPont decided not to mine the area.
Steve Fennessy: So years go by and I guess around 2019, Twin Pines files an application with the state to do some mining, but — but it's on a scale, at least at that point, that was significantly smaller than what DuPont had proposed some years earlier.
Mary Landers: Right, exactly. Although that — that first application involves the feds as well in the form of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because of a Clean Water Act rule called Waters of the United States.
[News tape] WHYY: When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it said the government would protect any waterways that were navigable. But over the years, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers felt protection was needed for smaller, upstream waterways. In 2015, Obama's EPA tried to clarify which waters would be protected with the Waters of the U.S. rule. But there was a backlash from the oil and gas industry, builders and farmers.
Mary Landers: They had to get the Corps at that time to say to sign off on whatever wetlands would be impacted by their mining operation.
Steve Fennessy: What became of that application to the Army Corps of Engineers?
Mary Landers: So that application has its own interesting history. Part of the application included land that Twin Pines claimed to own or control, but did not have ownership or control of. So that's problematic. But before that problem became a really big one, the rules changed. Basically, the Trump administration revised how it would handle the Clean Water Act rules, and it made it easier for companies so that the Corps was not in control of so many wetlands.
Steve Fennessy: But that still, of course, leaves the state, right? The state Environmental Protection Division. So what authority do they have in terms of allowing or not allowing an application like this to go forward?
Mary Landers: So at this point, they have total authority. The company needs to get five permits, three of them water related. And then there's an air permit and a mining permit. So if any of those, if were denied, then they — they would not be allowed to mine.
Steve Fennessy: The Twin Pines mining proposal has angered residents, politicians and environmentalists. How they're fighting back to protect the Okefenokee Swamp — next. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm joined by Mary Landers, who covers the environment for The Current. She's written about a controversial proposal for mining near the Okefenokee Swamp. She joins me now. Since the news broke about Twin Pines application to mine along Trail Ridge, what has been the response by —by local folks, by environmentalists, by the state?
Mary Landers: There's been a lot of response from a lot of people who love the Okefenokee and are very concerned that the state will give these permits. They fear that it will be detrimental to the water supply, basically to the Okefenokee. People fear that the hydrology will be changed and there will be unintended consequences for the swamp.
Steve Fennessy: So let's talk about the mining operation specifically for titanium dioxide. What does it look like? We have this ridge that's elevated above the land surrounding it. So if the the mining operation comes in, what do they actually do?
Mary Landers: Twin Pines is promising to do it kind of bit by bit and clean up after themselves. You know, it's like tens of acres at a time, so they would dig up and extract what they need and put back everything else. I always picture it as a kind of parfait, a dirt. You know, the underground situation is in layers, and if you dig into your parfait, whatever's left is not going to look the same when you put it back. There are local politicians who are eager to get the jobs that go along with this mining effort, and there are equally local people who have a deep and longstanding connection to the swamp, culturally, personally, and they don't want to see it go forward.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk a little bit more about the potential environmental ramifications. I'm trying to imagine: So we have a mining operation kind of digging into this elevated ridge that's close to the swamp. What what could possibly happen, that would be detrimental?
[News tape] 11ALIVE: What the mine could mean for the ecosystem: Trees and underbrush would need to be removed on thousands of acres during the process, but later replanted, according to the proposal from Twin Pines Minerals.
Mary Landers: One of the things that's required is a water withdrawal permit. They have requested from the state a water withdrawal permit for, I think it's 1.3 million gallons per day. So we have drinking water: water that's underground and folks along the coast, we use that for our drinking water, largely. So the request is to process their mining operation. So that is one of the huge concerns. If you're taking that much water out, you're using that in your processing and some of it's going back, but some of it Isn't. That's changing the the flow of water underground, and that's worrisome for the Okefenokee. And if you breach that dam, the Trail Ridge, what does that mean? Does it — will it still behave in the same way to keep the Okefenokee at the same water levels that it has now?
Steve Fennessy: Because right now the entire swamp is is sort of contained by by natural forces. And so tinkering with those — those natural forces could alter what the swamp looks like.
Mary Landers: Yeah, and we have innumerable examples from all over the country of what a change in one place, a natural system does someplace else.
Steve Fennessy: So Mary, in 2019, Twin Pines comes along, submits an application to mine along the Trail Ridge. How much were they looking to actually mine and did they scale that back over time in the wake of the opposition?
Mary Landers: Yes. So they — they did. What they initially asked for was a little under 10,000 acres, I believe. And now the request is more like 750, and they're calling it a a demonstration project with the idea that if they could demonstrate that that this is doable without harming the swamp, then they could go on from there. The EPD says giving the OK to this particular demonstration project does not mean that the next one would be given an OK, but that's the fear from the opposition.
Steve Fennessy: Where does that application stand right now? Is it? Is it strictly in the hands of the state government? Do the feds have any say in this whatsoever now?
Mary Landers: So it's mainly in the hands of the state government. Now, the Biden administration has reversed some of those Trump administration changes. So we're flip-flopping about what we consider waters of the U.S. If some of those things were to go back to federal decision, then potentially that could change. There's also some concern that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could take a — a larger role.
Steve Fennessy: So we have the state involved, we have potentially the feds involved, and then we also have a bill that's been proposed in the state General Assembly. What does that say? What would that provide?
Mary Landers: OK, so there is a House bill proposed in early February. It would basically prohibit mining on Trail Ridge, so we wouldn't have to have this debate every 20 years or however often it comes up. It would just put the Trail Ridge in a state of legal protection.
Steve Fennessy: And so what's the status of that bill?
Mary Landers: That bill got a lot of support from coastal representatives, so it looked like it was going to shoot right through. Bipartisan support as well, I should add. It is sitting in the Natural Resources Committee and it has not gotten a hearing there. So that's my next story, is looking into what's going on there with that bill.
Steve Fennessy: Mary, you've covered the environment for a long time along the coast. How significant is this in — in the scope of all of the things that you've covered over the years?
Mary Landers: I remember when I first came to Georgia in about 1996. Very shortly after that, there was all of this hoopla about DuPont, and it made a huge impression on me that everybody rallied around the Okefenokee. Then they've got to go and visit the Okefenokee and see why so many people were were so pleased with what their efforts had produced. So when it came up again, it was really surprising that it that it did come up, as you know, another mining proposal. And it was not surprising to me that so many people again rallied around it. It's an international destination.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: People come from all over the world to this little remote corner of Georgia and North Florida to see the Okefenokee.
Mary Landers: When it was first proposed. I think that the Corps got all kinds of comments from all over the world. It's a big deal in a lot of ways. And I think with climate change, the whole importance of that peat underneath the Okefenokee that's come more into focus. That — that's a big carbon sink there. And you don't want something happening to a big carbon sink.
[News tape] CNN: Around the world, there are ecosystems that absorb and hold huge amounts of greenhouse gases. These are carbon sinks. They play a pivotal role in regulating the Earth's climate and can also defend against the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But they are increasingly under threat from industrial exploitation and global warming.
Steve Fennessy: Twenty years ago or so, DuPont applied to try to mine along the Trail Ridge, and then it sounds like they unilaterally said — said "no," in the face of opposition. So it sort of took the — took the decision out of the hands of the state because DuPont withdrew. Essentially, what's been Twin Pines attitude toward this? Is there a chance that they may do the same thing as DuPont or are they in this for the long haul?
Mary Landers: They haven't given any indication that they're backing down.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: We spoke with the company president, Steve Ingle, Tuesday. He says that the deposits represent a domestic source of titanium yet to be developed, which could be useful, he added, in that the majority of mineral consumed in the U.S. is imported.
Steve Fennessy: The opposition, when DuPont proposed mining 20 some years ago, was really significant. Having witnessed it before, if — if the — if you sense something different about what the opposition looks like now compared to 20 years ago.
Mary Landers: Well, I think the main difference is the private company versus a publicly held company and that the approach has to be somewhat different. The opposition's approach has to be somewhat different because they don't have that leverage of shareholders.
Steve Fennessy: Has the governor said anything one way or the other about all this?
Mary Landers: To my knowledge, he has not weighed in. Previously, though, when Sen. Perdue was our senator, that was when the Corps was still involved and his staffers were meeting with the Corps regularly about Twin Pines' progress, and he took a direct interest in it. Now that we — we have our new senators, they seem to have taken an interest in the other direction, particularly Ossoff. Sen. Jon Ossoff wrote a letter opposing the mining.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Mary Landers, who covers the environment for The Current, an online news outlet along the Georgia coast. Environmental officials are accepting public comments on the Trail Ridge Mining proposal, and you can email your opinion to Twin Pines.comment@DNR.Ga.gov. No timeline has been announced yet for a decision on the mining permit application.
A SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM HOST STEVE FENNESSY:
As we wrap up this week's podcast, I want to say a special thanks to you: the listeners who have downloaded Georgia Today each week over the last almost two years. As it turns out, this week marks our final episode, at least for the time being. Georgia Public Broadcasting is moving on to other things, so please keep an ear out for future podcasts because I know they'll be great. My thanks to Jess Mador, our producer, and to our engineers Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. And I also want to say a special thank you to the dozens and dozens of journalists that we've hosted on the show who gave us their insight, their time and their expertise to help us better understand the crucial stories and issues facing Georgia during these fraught times. Journalism is a pressured business on its best day, and I hope the show has helped amplify the good work that they do week in and week out. Georgia Today has been a constant reminder to me, as I hope it is to you, of not just the importance but the necessity of local journalism. So please continue to support it and especially to support Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can do that and sign up for GPB newsletters at GPB.org/newsletters. Thanks, and we'll see you around.