Fate of planned mine near Okefenokee left to Georgia agency
More than 160 years after her great-great-grandfather settled on a plot of land surrounded by water in the Okefenokee Swamp, Sheila Carter takes visitors on guided canoe tours to observe firsthand the abundant alligators and birds on stilts wading through the blooming water. lilies.
Even when not working, Carter often paddles the tea-colored waters to find peace amid the largely unspoiled wilderness. She fears it could be irreparably damaged if a mining company is allowed to extract minerals just outside the Okefenokee, which is home to America’s largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.
âI’ve paddled the swamp my whole life,â said Carter, whose ancestors first arrived in the Okefenokee in 1858. âThey can’t guarantee 100% that they won’t destroy or destroy will not damage the swamp. And I don’t want them there.
Twin Pines Minerals of Birmingham, Alabama, has spent the past two years seeking government permits to mine titanium dioxide from land 2.9 miles (4.7 kilometers) from the southeastern boundary of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The plan has sparked an uproar that extends far beyond this sparsely populated community near the Georgia-Florida line.
Federal scientists have warned that mining near the bowl-shaped rim of the Okefenokee could damage the swamp’s ability to hold water. Environmental groups have gathered thousands of people to write or call regulators and elected officials.
For now, the decision to get mine approval rests with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The state agency often considers permits for such projects in tandem with federal regulators. The US government had originally played a role in evaluating the Twin Pines project near the Okefenokee until then-President Donald Trump changed the rules, reducing the types of waterways eligible for protection federal law under the Clean Water Act.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which had reviewed a federal permit for the Twin Pines mine, said in October that as a result of those setbacks it no longer had jurisdiction over wetlands at the 739-acre site (299 hectares) outside the marsh.
This left state regulators in Georgia with sole oversight authorization for the project.
âWe are in uncharted waters,â said Bill Sapp, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. I have a natural resource of the caliber of the Okefenokee.
The proposed mine near the Okefenokee Refuge is just one high-profile example of federal regulators bypassing projects that could pollute waterways or drain wetlands due to rule changes under Trump.
Since the new rules came into effect last June, the Army Corps has assessed more than 40,000 wetlands, streams and other bodies of water facing potential development impacts. The agency found that only 24% qualified for protection under US environmental laws, said Doug Garman, spokesman for the Army Corps in Washington.
Garman said comparable data prior to the rule change was not readily available. However, an online database maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that under previous rules, 42% of waters and bodies of water assessed by the Army Corps since August 2015 met federal protection criteria.
President Joe Biden’s administration has ordered a review of Trump’s rule changes and may take action to reverse them. But some conservation groups fear it will take too long and hope Trump’s flashbacks are overturned by a judge.
“Impacts are happening across the country,” said Kelly Moser, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center, challenging the setbacks in US District Court in South Carolina. “With this kind of rate of water protection loss, there is no time to waste.”
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 marsh’s wildlife, cypress forests and flooded meadows attract about 600,000 visitors each year, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge.
Two decades ago, chemicals giant DuPont withdrew from plans to mine outside the Okefenokee after encountering fierce resistance. Twin Pines wants permits to mine a small fraction of the acreage operated by DuPont. Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines, declined to answer questions about potential environmental impacts. Ingle has previously insisted that his company can operate the site without damaging the swamp.
Government scientists have been skeptical. In February 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the proposed mine could pose “substantial risks” to the marsh, including its ability to hold water. Some impacts, he said, “may not be able to be reversed, repaired or mitigated.”
Ingle said the mining would occur on a ridge above the swamp and not go deep enough to cause leaks underground.
Georgia’s environmental regulators are reviewing five permit applications for the project. After an initial review, regulators sent Twin Pines 10 pages of questions and requested changes in April. Once these answers have been obtained, the agency organizes a meeting for the general public.
âWe see the EPD being extremely careful,â said Neill Herring, a Sierra Club lobbyist in Georgia. “The agency’s response is more important than it would have been before the Corps withdrew from the field.”
Supporters of the mine include Charlton County elected commissioners, who were swayed by Twin Pines’ pledge to bring $ 300 million in investment and about 400 jobs to the area.
Dixie McGurn, who owns a shop in Folkston where tourists stop for lunch, ice cream and souvenirs, admits she’s torn. Many visitors to Okefenokee are day trippers, she said, who don’t spend enough for local businesses to thrive.
“I don’t want anything to happen to our great wonder,” said McGurn, a former mayor of Folkston. “But I’m worried about our workforce. We need something else to stimulate our economy here.”
Georgia’s new Democratic US senators are pushing for federal scientists to stay involved even though they have no formal oversight role.
The senses. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock asked the Fish and Wildlife Service in an April 28 letter to offer to help Georgia regulators review state permit applications. Ossoff again called on the agency to “participate intensively” on a recent tour of Okefenokee.
The offer received a cold reception from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Agency spokesperson Kevin Chambers said he expects federal scientists “to offer their input during the public consultation process” on Twin Pines’ requests.
Chambers said several thousand people had already submitted public comments.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp has also had his ears full of it. A Georgia River Network campaign to mobilize opponents of the mine generated 8,000 letters and 2,000 phone calls to Kemp’s office, said Rena Peck, the group’s executive director.
Kemp refused to take a stand. During an April stop in Folkston, he said, âI’m going to let the process unfold.