Environmentalists hold up the controversial proposal to mine for minerals near the Okefenokee Swamp as the poster child of the lands that lost federal protection under former President Donald Trump’s administration last summer.
That rule replaced an Obama-era one that opponents criticized as government overreach and shifted the focus of the Twin Pines Minerals’ mining application from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which is now poised to decide the fate of the mining project.
The Alabama-based company submitted five permit applications this year to the state for the 740-acre mining demonstration that Twin Pines says will prove it can pull off the project without threatening the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.
But the change in administration on the federal level has sparked hope among opponents who argue the project needlessly puts at risk the diverse ecosystem that straddles the Georgia-Florida border and feeds the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers.
President Joe Biden’s administration announced in January an administrative review would take place to consider reversing some of Trump’s weakening of regulations protecting waterways.
And Georgia’s newest Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have expressed their support for reinstating environmental protections as well, although congressional action would not affect the pending mining proposal. The Democrats’ upset wins over former Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on Jan. 5 tipped the balance of congressional power in favor of Democrats and could soon sway environmental policy direction to cover the swamp and other endangered waterways in the future.
Any change coming from the White House, though, would take time, which is why environmentalists like Rena Ann Peck, executive director with the Georgia River Network, says she remains on “high alert” as she advocates for the project’s defeat on the state level.
“Biden can say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, let’s protect these wetlands again. Let’s change the rollback or revise it.’ That can’t happen pronto,” Peck said. “Because the way the process goes, it can be a year and a half or two. So, a lot can happen. If I were a developer, I would want to get my project done – chop, chop, ASAP – before the federal rules come back.”
Peck, whose group takes swamp visitors paddling on the shallow waters of the Okefenokee’s canoe trail system, said she has visited the proposed mining site and seen the burrows dug by the official state reptile, the threatened gopher tortoise.
She said she hopes Congress will shore up protections in the Clean Water Act to prevent such drastic policy pendulum swings in the future and protect the gopher tortoise and thousands of other species living in and around the Okefenokee.
Twin Pines says it has conducted studies showing minimal impact to the Okefenokee as it presses forward to dig for the titanium oxide the company wants to use as the white pigment found in paint and paper.
The mining would initially take place about three miles from the refuge along Trail Ridge, which is a one-mile wide and 100-mile long ridge that forms the hydrological divide between the Okefenokee and St. Marys River.
The plan is supported by the Charlton County Commission for its potential to bring jobs to the rural community.
But as Twin Pines works on an additional checklist requested by the EPD, the state agency has also announced the permit applications will undergo a comprehensive analysis and that public hearings will be held, even though neither is required.
Twin Pines owner Steven Ingle said he is not deterred by the process that’s been underway for a couple of years now. He said it remains unclear how much longer it will take to get government approval.
In 2019, the mining company publicly presented its plans in meetings in Folkston where it disclosed a study that considered the impact of a 12,000-acre mining operation. Twin Pines last year submitted a proposal downsized to 740 acres in hopes of gaining traction.
“No one goes into a project of this magnitude with more skepticism than the people who put up the money,” Ingle said. “They must ensure compliance with all local, state and federal regulations to protect their investment.
“Thus, investors are concerned, as much or more than anyone, that they can go from A to Z and do it correctly,” Ingle said. “From our perspective, if we were not 100% convinced of our ability to mine in ways that meet the strictest standards for environmental protection, then we would not put such a huge investment on the line.”
Twin Pines is also spending hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying in Washington D.C. and in Georgia, where the company has hired a dozen registered lobbyists this year even though the mining proposal sits with a state agency across the street from the Gold Dome.
Josh Marks, an Atlanta attorney who worked as a Sierra Club organizer to defeat a similar mining project in the 1990s, is pushing for the state EPD to require an independent, extensive environmental study.
That study should look beyond the 740-acre site and consider at least the 12,000 acres of the potential expanded mining footprint, Marks said.
He also urged Gov. Brian Kemp and legislators to wield their power to delay or halt the proposal.
Marks said he also hopes officials take into account Ingle’s ties to Georgia Renewable Power and its controversial biomass plants in northeast Georgia where resident complaints led to state lawmakers banning the burning of creosote-soaked railroad ties just last year.
“It will be critically important for the public to weigh in during the state’s comment periods to show Gov. Kemp and EPD that the Okefenokee is too important to risk with this dangerous proposal,” Marks said.
“Over 60,000 people submitted comments to the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) during the federal process, which shows the enormous public opposition to this project that’s out there, and we expect even more folks to weigh in with EPD.”
According to Peck, more than 7,000 letters have already been sent to Kemp’s office and more than 2,000 calls have been made to his office from those trying to stop the project. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
A public hearing will be held later; written comments can be sent to TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov.
Public outcry and government opposition played a critical role two decades ago in stopping Dupont’s plans to strip-mine titanium from 38,000 acres near the Okefenokee boundary. Then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was a loud and high-profile opponent. Biden’s nominee for secretary of the interior, Debra Haaland, has not yet been confirmed.
In the meantime, the courts could still weigh in. There are several lawsuits challenging Trump’s “navigable” waters rule, including one filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
If the rule is struck down, it could restore protections to nearly 400 acres of wetlands under the Clean Water Act and lower the chance of the mining operation expanding towards the Okefenokee refuge boundaries, said Bill Sapp, a senior attorney for the nonprofit based in Charlottesville, Va.
If the mining proposal fails, Sapp said he hopes the threat will be enough to highlight the need for a buffer around the swamp.
“What the mining shows us is that the integrity of the Okefenokee Swamp is in danger, and until we make a really concerted effort to protect the perimeter of the swamp, we’re going to run into this situation again and again,” he said.
Former Okefenokee concessionaire Chip Campbell said the uncertainty of how quickly the process will play out in D.C. and in Georgia has only intensified the speculation around mining proposal.
Campbell, who recently sold Okefenokee Adventures after two decades and who is involved with local riverkeeper groups, said he has mixed feelings about the project. He said he doesn’t think the mining will cause any significant problems, but even so, he’d prefer not to take the risk.
“The evidence suggests that the swamp and the river are probably safe,” Campbell said. “But that becomes the real question. That’s apart from whether you’re going to feel good about it.”