Credit: Photo contributed by Joy Campbell
Okefenokee fans rally support again as mining plan nears final Georgia EPD review
A major hurdle could soon be cleared for Twin Pines Minerals’ controversial plan to mine near Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge three years after it was announced.
Members of a coalition of park supporters say they are rallying the public against plans that they claim would threaten hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands.
The Alabama-based mining company pushing the plan says it is still putting the finishing touches on its permit application for Georgia Environmental Protection Division review. It aims to dig for titanium dioxide along 582 acres of Trail Ridge, located about three miles from the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.
As soon as this fall, the state’s environmental agency could open another 60-day public comment period before making its final decision on the mining plans following years of bureaucratic red tape, major shifts in environmental regulations, and litigation. In late spring, federal officials threw more sand in the gears when they pressed for the Muscogee Creek Nation to get a chance to weigh in.
Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said Thursday that the project is moving ahead as planned.
“We continue to cooperate with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to answer all questions about our application and provide additional information as requested,” he said. “We look forward to obtaining the permits, starting our mining-to-land-reclamation project and to providing hundreds of good paying jobs for our friends in Charlton County and the region.”
More than 130,000 comments have been submitted to environmental regulators. Members of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance coalition of environmental organizations are urging people to tell state EPD officials to reject a mining project that they say threatens a habitat that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and is home to over 600 plant species and rare animals.
Since publicly unveiling its mining plans in 2019, the company has downsized from the initial 8,000-acre proposal for digging up titanium dioxide, a heavy metal most commonly used for pigment found in white paint and plastics.
There is concern that the company’s plans for “demonstration” mining will result in future phases encroaching on thousands of acres closer to Okefenokee Swamp.
This week, the Georgia River Network and fellow alliance members hosted a panel discussion following a screening of the PBS EcoSense for Living documentary “Okefenokee Destiny.”
“We have an incredible opportunity to not make mistakes today to do the right thing today to ensure that the Okefenokee is not damaged, irreparably or in a way that cost huge amount of money to repair the ecosystem, which is what the Everglades National Park had to do,” Kim Bednarek, executive director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park & Adventures, said in the documentary.
State Rep. Darlene Taylor, a Thomasville Republican, said she plans to sponsor new legislation next year defining exactly where mining would be banned along Trail Ridge.
“Right now I would recommend that people that have concerns do write to our board and let the Department of Natural Resources folks that are making these decisions know,” Taylor said. “I think when they hear from the public, it does make a difference to them. They need to know and recognize this is an important place. Titanium is important. Economic development is important. But there is only one Okefenokee.”
The opponents of Twin Pines plans argue that Trial Ridge serves as a natural dam for the wildlife refuge, by separating the swamp from the St. Mary’s River.
The mining process will lower the swamp’s water levels and cause the diverse ecosystem to be more vulnerable to severe droughts, said Rhett Jackson, a professor of water resources at the University of Georgia.
The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in the United States.
However, Twin Pines contends that Trail Ridge acts as a hydraulic barrier rather than a dam, which would allow groundwater to flow both sides.
The project returned to the purview of the state EPD in August after Twin Pines sued the Army Corps for retaking control of the review process. The federal agency quickly reversed its decision to require the Muscogee Creek Nation’s input on how the project might encroach on ancestral burial grounds.
A federal wetlands permit was no longer required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after then-President Donald Trump’s administration removed protections for the wetlands.
What to know
Comments about the Twin Pines mining project in southeast Georgia can be emailed to TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov.
Text SWAMP 52886 to send a letter to state legislators about mining along Trail Ridge.
More information is available from the Okefenokee Protection Alliance and Georgia River Network.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.