Regulators move mine plan near Okefenokee a big step forward

Jan 19, 2023, 12:00 PM | Updated: 12:07 pm
FILE - The sun sets on the lily pads and floating vegetation in the Chesser Prairie inside the Okef...

FILE - The sun sets on the lily pads and floating vegetation in the Chesser Prairie inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on March 30, 2022, in Folkston, Ga. A company's plan to mine minerals just outside the Okefenokee Swamp and it's federally protected wildlife refuge moved a big step closer Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, to approval by Georgia regulators, who have spent years evaluating the project that opponents say could permanently harm an ecological treasure. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A company’s plan to mine minerals just outside the Okefenokee Swamp and its federally protected wildlife refuge moved a big step closer Thursday to approval by Georgia regulators, who have spent years evaluating the project that opponents say could permanently harm an ecological treasure.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division released a draft plan Thursday for how Twin Pines Minerals would operate its proposed mine and mitigate potential impacts to the swamp. The move triggered a 60-day period for public comments before the agency can approve a final plan, which is required for the project to qualify for a mining permit.

Since 2019, Twin Pines of Birmingham, Alabama, has been seeking government permits to mine titanium dioxide less than 3 miles (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 recently declared the proposed mine poses an “unacceptable risk” to the fragile ecosystem at the Georgia-Florida line.

Twin Pines has insisted it can mine without harming the swamp, and Georgia regulators echoed a key point of the company’s assurances Thursday. In a summary of the draft plan, the state agency said its own analysis has “concluded that water level in the swamp will be minimally impacted.”

The role of Georgia regulators is critical because the federal government, which normally weighs environmental permits in tandem with state agencies, has relinquished oversight of the Twin Pines project.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said the Georgia agency’s decision to let the project advance to the next stage was an “important milestone.”

“This is a great opportunity for people to learn the truth about what our operations will and will not do, and the absurdity of allegations that our shallow mining-to-land-reclamation process will `drain the swamp’ or harm it in any way,” Ingle said in a statement.

Opponents promised an impassioned fight during the two-month comment period.

Josh Marks, an Atlanta environmental attorney who has been a leading critic of the Twin Pines plan, said the company can’t be trusted to operate responsibly “next to Georgia’s greatest natural treasure.”

“Twin Pines Minerals’ dangerous proposal to strip mine along the hydrologic boundary of the Okefenokee would be a massive threat to the swamp’s integrity even if TPM was a flawless, experienced operator,” Marks said.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly 630 square miles (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, recently warned state regulators in a written analysis that mining pits Twin Pines plans to dig would siphon off enough groundwater to triple the frequency and duration of severe droughts in the swamp’s southeast corner.

“Such an increase in drought frequency will have substantial effects on swamp ecology, wildfire frequency, and boating access for tourism, management, and scientific purposes,” Jackson said Thursday, calling the draft mining plan “deeply flawed.”

The Army Corps of Engineers was in the process of reviewing a federal permit for Twin Pines when the agency declared in 2020 that it no longer had authority over the project because of regulatory rollbacks under President Donald Trump.

Despite efforts by President Joe Biden to restore federal oversight, the Army Corps entered an agreement with Twin Pines last year to maintain its hands-off position. Conservation groups have filed suit over that deal.

In releasing the draft plan Thursday, the state Environmental Protection Division noted that Twin Pines still faces an additional draft and comment period for a surface mining permit if its mining plan gets approved. The company also has permit applications still pending for air and groundwater withdrawal permits related to the same mining project.

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Regulators move mine plan near Okefenokee a big step forward