Twin Pines Minerals’ staging site in Charlton County near the swamp.

Twin Pines Minerals’ staging site in Charlton County near the Okenfenokee Swamp.

Credit: Justin Taylor / The Current

Mary Landers, The Current

Twin Pines Minerals LLC, the Alabama-based company with controversial plans to mine for titanium dioxide near the Okefenokee, has agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty related to its drilling of exploratory boreholes for the project.

In a consent order signed Tuesday, the state Environmental Protection Division states the reasons for the penalty: “Drilling boreholes on 107 days without providing a performance bond or letter of credit to the Director for the conduct of drilling operations; drilling boreholes on 24 days while not under the direction of a professional engineer or a professional geologist registered in the state of Georgia.”

The company denies any wrongdoing. But a critic of the project says the penalty calls into question the validity of the data derived from the boreholes and ultimately if the project should go forward.

“We respectfully disagree that any violation occurred. The alleged infractions are based on EPD’s interpretation of ambiguous technical regulations,” Lewis Jones of Jones Fortuna LP, representing Twin Pines, wrote in a prepared statement. “While we disagree with EPD’s interpretation, we appreciate that no harm to the environment is alleged.”

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney and President of Georgians for the Okefenokee, worries that the harm to the environment is yet to come if EPD allows possibly faulty soil samples to shape its analysis.  

“The purpose of the statute requiring professional supervision of drilling is to ensure the integrity of the geologic samples being obtained, so that the regulators can accurately analyze impacts of mining on groundwater quantity and quality and ultimately on the Okefenokee,” he wrote in an email. “But 263 out of 385 boreholes on TPM’s own boring logs, or over two-thirds of the samples, appear to have been supervised by individuals that were not licensed geologists in Georgia, which calls into question the validity of two-thirds of TPM’s soil data and the integrity of the entire mining permit application.  

He’s calling for a do-over.

“The proper remedy in any situation like this, but especially when Georgia’s greatest natural treasure is at stake, would be to force the company to go back and repeat all of the sampling with the requisite supervision and resubmit the application from scratch,” he wrote. “Instead, EPD totally missed or ignored those violations,  and instead issued a $20,000 fine and asked the company to ensure all of the boreholes are properly filled in after the fact.”  

Twin Pines plans to recover titanium dioxide and zircon from a 582-acre demonstration mine in Charlton County. At its closest point the mine will be less than three miles from the boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

That proximity worries scientists and conservationists who argue the mining can’t be done without disrupting the flow of water in the beloved blackwater swamp, one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems. Twin Pines insists that it will not harm the swamp, which is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The company applied for a permit to mine more than a year ago. That permit application is still under review at EPD. It’s unclear if the consent order will affect the permitting. 

“We agreed to sign the consent order to put this matter behind us and move our project forward,” Twins Pines’ attorney wrote. “Twin Pines is committed to complying with the letter and spirit of all applicable rules and regulations, both to protect the environment and to maintain a good working relationship with EPD. We look forward to securing the permit to begin mining operations and providing hundreds of good paying jobs for Georgians.”

The $20,000 penalty is a fraction of the maximum allowed. EPD rules provide for civil penalties of up to $5,000 a day. Given that the alleged infraction occurred over 131 days, the total could have been $655,000.

To Marks, the fine is too little and the required remedy of making sure the boreholes are properly abandoned misses the point.

“For a project that TPM’s own lawyer says will generate several billions of dollars of revenue for TPM, this is not even a slap but a tap on the wrist, is akin to putting lipstick on the pig after it’s already on the spit, and is an egregious abdication of EPD’s responsibility to protect our natural resources,” he wrote.

Twin Pines Minerals and a subcontractor drilled more than 400 boreholes in 2018 to help figure out how water will flow through the soil as the area is strip-mined for titanium dioxide. But beginning in November 2022, as it reviewed the company’s mining permit application, EPD began to question whether the company failed to get the required state bonding and the licensing for its geologist before drilling began.

The boreholes aren’t Twin Pines’ first regulatory misstep. The Alabama-based company previously applied for federal and state permits to mine on land it didn’t own, and it didn’t back off until the true property owner, TIAA Timberland, spoke up. Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia EPD allowed Twin Pines to amend its applications without penalty, which could have been severe. The penalty for errors on the federal application includes up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Twin Pines hasn’t previously mined in Georgia, but it’s been cited for breaking mining rules in Florida. Company executives have ties to Georgia Renewable Power and Drummond Coal, both companies with stained environmental records.

The boreholes aren’t the projects first data collection process to be criticized, either. Last year, academic scientists questioned the appropriateness of the choice of river gauge data in EPD’s analysis, too.

“Unfortunately, this continues a troubling pattern behavior by EPD, which one year ago used the wrong river gage to conclude the mine would have no impact on the swamp, a decision criticized by 13 scientists from around the country,” Marks said.

Legislation to protect the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge from future mining efforts is again making its way through the Georgia General Assembly. Despite amassing bipartisan sponsorship from 91 legislators,  House Bill 71, “The Okefenokee Protection Act," stalled in committee last year. Advocates are vowing to push it again this year with the version that shrinks the geographic region where mining is prohibited so that it would not affect Twin Pines’ current permit applications.

Marks sees the legislation as the swamp’s best hope.

“It’s unfortunately clear that EPD cannot be trusted to follow the law and science, and that a legislative solution prohibiting mining on Trail Ridge along the swamp’s eastern boundary is the only way to ensure the Okefenokee’s protection,”  he wrote.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.