Georgia could allow a mine near Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge swamp

FOLKSTON, Ga. — Charlene Carter’s family has spent generations in and around the Okefenokee Swamp.

Its tannin-stained waters are practically part of her blood; its hundreds of bird species her eternal soundtrack; its maze of narrow canals, haunting cypress trees and ever-present alligators the backdrop of so many memories.

Carter now manages a campground and cafe at the edge of the roughly 640-square-mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest intact blackwater swamp in North America. She longs for it to remain wild, pristine and protected — and counts herself among the outspoken opponents of a proposed titanium mine just outside its borders.

“I don’t care what they say,” said Carter, 39. “There’s a lot to lose.”

In this small corner of southeastern Georgia, a big fight is raging over the planned mine, which recently inched closer to approval.

The company behind the mine, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, has promised that its investment will expand the local tax base and bring hundreds of good-paying jobs to an area where poverty runs deep. It insists its operations to extract titanium dioxide — widely used as a pigment in paints, sunscreens and an array of other products — will not leave a lasting scar on the land or threaten the beloved swamp.

But a broad and boisterous coalition of environmental groups, scientists, lawmakers and other citizens — not to mention the Biden administration — has opposed the mine at every turn, arguing that the proposed excavation along a mineral-rich area known as Trail Ridge is not only risky but also reckless.

“We’re not against mining,” said Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s just ludicrous to create a mine right on the edge of a national treasure like the Okefenokee.”

He said Americans should be as wary of mining near the untamed swamp “as they would any action that jeopardizes the integrity of something like Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.”

The fight playing out along the Georgia-Florida border already has spanned five years. But the conflict is entering a critical stretch.

Last month, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division issued draft permits that, if finalized, would allow the project to move forward. In its responses to more than 78,000 public comments it received last year, raising numerous concerns, the agency wrote in part that it believes the current proposal “should have a minimal impact” on the swamp.

Regulators will accept another round of public comments through April 9.

“These are defining months,” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park.

The organization leads educational trips and is helping the U.S. government’s bid to have the refuge deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site — a designation, supporters say, that would bring global recognition and an influx of tourism dollars.

The uproar over the mine has put this unique landscape and the communities around it under an unfamiliar microscope.

“We’re a swamp in the middle of nowhere south Georgia,” said Michael Lusk, who manages the refuge on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But there’s been an explosion of interest. And not only locally, but nationally and internationally as well.”

‘A very uncommon swamp’

“Everything you see around us is old sea floor,” Lusk says on a clear, late winter morning as he stands at the water’s edge.

Formed by a saucer-shaped depression left behind when the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, the Okefenokee is now a shallow, sprawling, mystical bog, fed almost entirely by rainwater.

The swamp supports an astounding array of life, from black bears and red-cockaded woodpeckers to black gum trees and carnivorous plants with names such as hooded pitcher and golden trumpet. It is the headwaters for two rivers, the Suwannee and the St. Marys. And its vast peat deposits, formed by the slow decomposition of plants and 15 feet deep in places, store enormous amounts of carbon.

Its human history is also long, diverse — and complicated.

Indigenous peoples referred to it as the “land of the trembling earth” because of the unstable peat mats that sway and ripple when stepped on.

Over time, the tribes that once inhabited the swamp, including the Seminole and Muscogee, were driven away. The Suwannee Canal Co. purchased the property and beginning in 1891 spent years in a failed attempt to drain it for farmland. Lumber companies later took over and removed more than 400 million board feet of timber, most of it cypress.

In 1937, after the federal government purchased the land, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

In the generations since, the swamp has recovered and remained largely undisturbed.

“It is essentially as it would have been when European colonists arrived in the U.S.,” Lusk said.

Twin Pines isn’t the first company to eye Trail Ridge, an ancient sand dune that runs along the eastern edge of the swamp. It is home to significant deposits of titanium dioxide and other minerals.

In the 1990s, DuPont pursued plans to mine titanium dioxide across tens of thousands of acres in the area.

Then, as now, the federal government joined environmental groups, scientists and local residents to fight the plan.

Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary under President Bill Clinton, visited in April 1997 and declared that mining and the Okefenokee “are not compatible.”

“Titanium is a common mineral,” Babbitt said that day, “while the Okefenokee is a very uncommon swamp.”

DuPont eventually abandoned the project and donated 16,000 acres for conservation.

More than two decades later, history is — and isn’t — repeating itself.

In 2019, Twin Pines initially sought permits to mine roughly 2,400 acres near the southeastern corner of the swamp. The company later amended its requests and now is seeking permission to operate on a 582-acre site — a far smaller footprint than DuPont sought.

The company said in a statement that there is “nothing similar” between its plans and DuPont’s.

Twin Pines has vowed to mine only a small portion at a time, to dig no deeper than 50 feet, and to operate no closer than 2.9 miles from the swamp. It has said the typical job will pay $60,000, far above the local average. It has promised to “leave the land better than we found it,” including planting native pines and donating a portion for conservation.

Besides, the company argues, protecting the surrounding ecosystem is merely good business.

“Common sense should tell anyone that the company would not put the hundreds of millions of dollars it is investing at risk by failing to comply with environmental regulations,” Twin Pines said in a statement.

Such assurances have done little to ease the ongoing skepticism.

Critics fear the mine could hinder eco-tourism around the refuge, which by some estimates eclipses 800,000 annual visitors. They question whether the promised jobs will go to local residents, and whether the more than 1.4 million gallons of groundwater the project could draw daily would fundamentally alter the swamp’s hydrology. They worry that if given approval, Twin Pines would try to expand its footprint in coming years, though that would require further permitting.

The Biden administration has made its objections clear.

In a letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the proposed mine “poses an unacceptable risk to the long-term hydrology” of the swamp. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently notified the state that it intends to assert federally guaranteed water rights for the refuge — an argument Twin Pines President Steve Ingle called “utterly meritless” in a statement.

Scientists such as C. Rhett Jackson, a University of Georgia hydrology professor, have questioned the company’s scientific assessments, arguing that such heavy groundwater use could triple the frequency of severe drought and wildfires on a landscape vulnerable to both.

“If you take a drought-sensitive system, and you take water out of it, you’re going to make it droughtier. It’s as simple of that,” Jackson said. “That’s bad for the swamp, for recreation, for nearby landowners. … I think it’s a terrible place to mine.”

That sentiment, while widespread, is not universal.

A bill aimed at protecting the Okefenokee from future mining expansion has stalled multiple times in Georgia’s legislature, despite bipartisan support.

The board of commissioners for Charlton County, where the mine would be located, passed a resolution expressing support for the project in 2019, even as other local governments in the region have opposed it.

Drew Jones, a Charlton County commissioner, believes too many people have been “reflexively oppositional.”

Everyone cares deeply about the Okefenokee, he said, but at the same time, the hospital in Folkston closed a decade ago, and emergency responders are understaffed. There are broken sidewalks, crumbling roads and a water treatment facility that needs modernizing.

“This community is in desperate need of economic development,” said Jones, who believes the mine could provide a meaningful boost, despite pushback from many opponents in Atlanta and Washington.

“These people go home and we all remain, and our problems remain,” he said.

As for the environmental concerns?

“Should there be tons of oversight? Absolutely. … If it’s not safe, then shut it down,” Jones said. But if state regulators determine that Twin Pines qualifies for permits, the mine should be allowed to go forward, he said.

That could well be what happens.

In August 2022, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers settled a lawsuit filed by Twin Pines, in which the agency relinquished regulatory oversight of the current proposal, leaving key decisions in Georgia’s hands.

In their most recent draft approvals, state regulators underscored that they have a responsibility to follow state surface-mining laws.

“If an application meets the requirements … a permit is issued,” the agency wrote.

‘Why take that chance?’

On a recent evening, the state held another public hearing ahead of any final permit decisions.

For three hours, nearly 100 people spoke passionately against the mine, as hundreds more listened in. Not one spoke in favor.

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney who has fought mining near the swamp for decades, had called the draft permits “a death warrant” for the Okefenokee. “A disaster waiting to happen,” he warned.

College students, grandparents, scientists, environmental activists, outdoor enthusiasts and local residents issued similar pleas, imploring state officials to halt the project.

They quoted the Bible, the Torah and University of Georgia hydrology findings. They described the Okefenokee as “majestic,” “sacred” and “precious.” They called the idea of mining anywhere near it “irresponsible,” “heartbreaking” and “shortsighted.”

One after another, they asked a version of the same question: Why risk it?

It was same question that the Rev. Antwon Nixon had posed days earlier, in a far more serene setting, as the sun sank orange and red over the Okefenokee.

Nixon, who grew up in Folkston, stared out from the bow of a small boat over the black water, its mirror-like surface reflecting the cypress and bay trees hung with Spanish moss.

Nearby, alligators warmed themselves under the Southern sun. Cricket frogs croaked. A blue heron flew low across the water. A pair of American bitterns waded through a reedy marsh, hunting for dinner.

Nixon, 47, came here on school trips as a boy but reconnected to the swamp after learning of the proposed mine several years ago at a Juneteenth celebration. Now, the Baptist preacher has emerged as one of its most ardent local opponents.

“It’s about stewardship,” he said. “We have a divine call to protect the land and maintain it.”

These days, he comes to the Okefenokee to meditate and marvel in a place of rare light and beauty. To enter the swamp is to leave the world of concrete and cars and flickering screens, and to drift through an ancient landscape unfamiliar to most Americans.

On this evening, the arguments raging around the swamp and its future felt far away. And yet, inescapable.

“Maybe they mine and nothing happens; it’s a possibility,” Nixon conceded. “But if they are wrong, if something goes catastrophically wrong …”

“Why take that chance? This place is too important to take the risk.”

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