Proposed Mine Outside US Wildlife Refuge Nears Approval

SAVANNAH, Ga. — A company’s plan to mine minerals near the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and its federally protected wildlife refuge neared final approval Friday as regulators in the U.S. state of Georgia released draft permits for the project, which opponents say could irreparably harm a natural treasure.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division said it will take public comments on the draft permits for 30 days before working up final versions to send to the agency’s director for approval.

Twin Pines Minerals of Birmingham, Alabama, has worked since 2019 to obtain government permits to mine titanium dioxide less than 4.8 kilometers from the southeastern boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest U.S. refuge east of the Mississippi River.

Federal scientists have warned that mining near the Okefenokee’s bowl-like rim could damage the swamp’s ability to hold water. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in 2022 declared the proposed mine poses an “unacceptable risk” to the fragile ecosystem at the Georgia-Florida line.

“This is a dark day in Georgia’s history,” said Josh Marks, an Atlanta environmental attorney and leader of the group Georgians for the Okefenokee. “EPD may have signed a death warrant for the Okefenokee Swamp, our state’s greatest natural treasure.”

In documents released Friday, state regulators echoed past comments that their analysis shows the proposed 312-hectare mine won’t significantly harm the Okefenokee or lower its water levels.

“EPD’s models demonstrate that the mine should have a minimal impact” on the Okefenokee refuge, the agency said, “even during drought periods.”

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle applauded regulators’ decision to move forward after what he called a “thorough evaluation of our application.”

Ingle has insisted for years that his company can mine without hurting the Okefenokee.

“We expect stringent government oversight of our mining-to-reclamation project, which will be fully protective of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge and the region’s environment,” Ingle said in a statement.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly 1,630 square kilometers in southeast Georgia and is home to alligators, bald eagles and other protected species. The swamp’s wildlife, cypress forests and flooded prairies draw roughly 600,000 visitors each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.

In February 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the proposed mine could pose “substantial risks” to the swamp, including its ability to hold water. Some impacts, it said, “may not be able to be reversed, repaired, or mitigated for.”

C. Rhett Jackson, a hydrology professor at the University of Georgia, warned state regulators in a written analysis that the mining pits planned by Twin Pines would siphon off enough groundwater to triple the frequency and duration of severe droughts in the swamp’s southeast corner.

Georgia regulators have an outsized role in deciding whether to approve the mine because the U.S. government, which normally considers environmental permits in tandem with state agencies, relinquished oversight of the Twin Pines project.

The Army Corps of Engineers was reviewing a federal permit for Twin Pines when the agency declared in 2020 that it no longer had jurisdiction authority because of regulatory rollbacks under then-President Donald Trump. Despite efforts by President Joe Biden to restore federal oversight, the Army Corps entered a legal agreement with Twin Pines to maintain its hands-off position.

The mining project is moving forward as the National Park Service seeks designation of the Okefenokee wildlife refuge as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Conservation groups say the rare distinction would boost the Okefenokee’s profile as one of the world’s last intact blackwater swamps and home to more than 400 animal species.

The draft permits were released barely two weeks after Twin Pines agreed to pay a $20,000 fine ordered by Georgia regulators, who said the company violated state laws while collecting soil samples for its permit application.

Twin Pines denied wrongdoing, but said it agreed to the fine to avoid further permitting delays.

“It is inconceivable to anyone who actually values Georgia’s environment to claim that this mine will not harm the critically important wetlands and wildlife of the Okefenokee ecosystem,” Ben Prater, southeast director for the group Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. He added: EPD has one job. It must deny the permits.”

Some House lawmakers In the Georgia legislature are again pushing a bill that would ban future mining outside the Okefenokee. The proposal got a hearing last year, but has stalled in a House committee. While the measure wouldn’t stop Twin Pines from obtaining permits already pending, it would prohibit expansion of the company’s mining operation if it became law.

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