Georgia environmental regulators issue draft permits for strip mine near Okefenokee

he Okefenokee Swamp attracts some 650,000 visits each year and is a major economic driver in Ware, Clinch and Charlton counties. Photo contributed by Joe Cook/Georgia River Network

State regulators have issued draft permits for a controversial mining proposal near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The state Environmental Protection Division announced late Friday afternoon that it had decided to issue draft permits for Alabama-based Twins Pines Minerals LLC. The company is planning a 582-acre demonstration mine about three miles away from the refuge, where it plans to strip mine Trail Ridge for titanium, staurolite, and zircon. 

The decision to issue an air quality permit, a permit to use groundwater and a surface mining permit kicks off a new public comment period, with a virtual public hearing planned for 6 p.m. March 5. Written comments can be submitted to twinpines.comment@dnr.ga.gov. The permits can be reviewed here.

A recent public comment period on the company’s land use plan attracted 78,632 written comments and 115 oral comments, according to EPD.

The response from environmental groups that fiercely oppose the proposal came quickly Friday. Some said they were still reviewing the drafts but had studied documents submitted earlier to the state.

Bill Sapp, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued the company has failed to prove their proposed mine would not harm the Okefenokee Swamp.

The proposal, he said, creates an unnecessary risk for the swamp and the tourism industry tied to the Okefenokee, which is being nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Georgians have clearly demonstrated they do not want this mine. Through public comments, petition, and rallies, folks oppose this mine because they understand what’s at stake,” Sapp said in a statement Friday. “EPD has the authority to deny these permits because the company cannot prove the Okefenokee and St. Marys River won’t be harmed in the process.”

Still, the draft permits are not final, Sapp said.  

“While this moves Twin Pines one step closer towards its goal to dig for minerals on 8,000 acres along Trail Ridge, these permits are only drafts. The reason Georgia EPD posts draft versions of the permit is because our state leaders give the public a chance to make their voices heard,” he said.

Other opponents of the mining proposal turned to Gov. Brian Kemp to intervene. Josh Marks, who is president of Georgians for the Okefenokee, urged the governor to reverse the decision.  

“This is a dark day in Georgia’s history,” said Josh Marks, who helped defeat DuPont’s mining proposal at the Okefenokee in the 1990s. He added that “EPD may have signed a death warrant for the Okefenokee Swamp, our state’s greatest natural treasure.” 

Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines Minerals, said the draft permits follow a “thorough evaluation of our application.”

“The exhaustive hydrology, geology, biology and herpetology studies, as we have said all along, have been validated.” Ingle said. “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.”

The project’s supporters argue the project would bring jobs to an area that needs them and say the work can be done without harming the swamp.

But opponents counter that the ridge plays a vital role in maintaining the swamp’s water levels and, therefore, supporting the refuge’s famously diverse ecosystem. 

And they worry the mining proposal would just be the beginning, with an expansion expected if approved now and other proposals likely to follow. 

“The vast majority of Georgians and those that live near this proposed mine oppose it. I’m certain EPD will receive an overwhelming number of comments opposing issuance of these permits,” said Rena Ann Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network.

“They should listen to the people and the independent scientists who warn that this mine will harm one of Georgia’s greatest natural treasures in the Okefenokee Swamp,” she said. 

A legislative proposal to prohibit any new or expanded mining proposal was endorsed by a little more than half the state House of Representatives, but the bill remains stalled in committee. An attorney for Twin Pines strongly objected to the bill last year.

This story comes to Rough Draft via a media partnership with Georgia Recorder.

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