LISTEN: Critics of a proposed mine near Okefenokee Swamp gave public comment to state environmental regulators on Tuesday during the first of two public hearings. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Credit: National Park Service

More than three dozen opponents of a proposed mine near the Okefenokee Swamp in Southeast Georgia urged state regulators on Tuesday night to block Twin Pines Minerals from proceeding with its 582-acre project.

Scientists, environmental lawyers, students and concerned citizens were among the 37 people who spoke at a virtual public meeting held by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, as the agency considers a plan from the Alabama-based company to mine titanium dioxide close to the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge.

“We have some of the highest levels of biodiversity to be in that swamp, anywhere in the country,” said Valdosta resident Treva Gear. “And so it concerns me that we're willing to threaten this national treasure with mining for titanium dioxide that can be mined elsewhere.”

No one in attendance spoke in favor of the project, which is in the midst of a 60-day public comment period. A second Zoom meeting will be held Thursday night.

Blackshear resident Maelyn Belmondo, who has taken not only her own children to the swamp but also elementary school students as a field trip chaperone, raised concerns about what a damaged Okefenokee would mean for future generations.

“I have seen firsthand the look on their faces when they experience the swamp, some of them for the very first time, and take a boat ride through the channels and get up close to a gator for the first time in their life — and it is truly awesome,” Belmondo said. “And so when I think about all these memories that I have — both me and my childhood and then my kids — I think about how traumatic this mining project can be.”

Given that Twin Pines has written that it intends for the mine to be for demonstration purposes, Lowndes County resident John Quarterman warned that authorizing the project would enable further development.

“If they get their foot in the door with this, they will not want to stop,” Quarterman said of Twin Pines. “So, I recommend that EPD stop this incursion into the Okefenokee Swamp and its environs now, rather than waiting until later.”

St. Marys resident Mary Gibson said that she has visited the swamp many times in the more than 40 years that she has lived in Coastal Georgia.

“The idea that the EPD is even considering such an application boggles my mind,” Gibson said. “It is a betrayal of their very existence to consider such an ecological disaster. It has been my experience in life that there are two kinds of mistakes. There are mistakes that can be fixed, and there are mistakes that cannot be fixed. Mining in any way that would endanger the Okefenokee swamp, in my mind, is a mistake that cannot be fixed.”

The hearing drew speakers from out of state, as well, including North Carolina resident and soil scientist Jenny Bauer.

“This will not only endanger the very existence of the swamp and its biodiversity, but potentially will release a massive amount of carbon into the air from the soil,” Bauer said, noting that wetland soils store the most carbon of all soils on the planet.

“The Okefenokee site needs to maintain its water level to keep that carbon in the ground,” Bauer said. “If Georgia and the U.S. has any commitment to preventing climate change or slowing climate change, we will stop mining from affecting this important carbon sink.”

The EPD is accepting written public comment until March 20, which can be submitted by emailing or by mailing the EPD's Land Protection Branch at 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport, Suite 104, Atlanta, GA 30354.