FOLKSTON, Ga. — A group of protesters arrived here Tuesday from across Georgia, nearby Florida and as far away as North Carolina to voice opposition to a proposed mine near the nationally treasured Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The protesters gathered outside a meeting hosted by Twin Pines Minerals, the Alabama company seeking to mine sand that can produce rare metals near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia.
The people attending the meeting inside the Charlton County government building were comparatively subdued, although the room crowded at times. The protesters joined about 150 people who toured information stations set up by Twin Pines over the course of the three-hour walk-through presentation. People eyeing the Twin Pines displays called for a better explanation of the science behind the plans.
Twin Pines consultants TTL Associates answered questions and tried to quell some of the exaggerations they say are tied to the proposed project, planned for 2,414 acres – for now. Twin Pines says that is the extent of its mining plans today, but is studying the impact if it strip mines 12,000 acres on the edge of the Okefenokee to retrieve minerals used to manufacture titanium.
Twin Pines is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permission to mine along the Trail Ridge, which separates the St. Marys River and Okefenokee Swamp.
The proposal is drawing some comparisons to a larger mining plan from 20 years ago that was nixed after national outrage. Environmentalists, politicians and others familiar with a much larger plan by DuPont two decades ago reacted with alarm in July soon after Twin Pines submitted its application.
“I’m very concerned that Trail Ridge, which serves as a dam for the Okefenokee, will be compromised so that the Okefenokee (swamp) itself could be drained,” said Rena Stricker, executive director of the Georgia River Network and one of the protesters Tuesday night.
Twin Pines’ owner Steve Ingle, however, said his company has already performed an extensive environmental study. He said the latest plan on display Tuesday night incorporates changes to address concerns raised by federal regulators – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps. of Engineers.
The company says that Trail Ridge is not a natural dam for the Okefenokee but is instead a hydraulic barrier to groundwater flow.
The Folkston hearing is the first of two meetings this week to offer the public a chance to learn more about the studies and speak with experts. The second meeting will be held Wednesday 5:30-8:30 p.m. in nearby St. George at 13063 Florida Ave.
Environmentalists worry the project will harm groundwater near the swamp. The swamp does not drain because rainwater divides into streams on one side of Trail Ridge and fills up the swamp to the west.
The public can submit comments to the agency by email through Sept. 12 at [email protected]
The Okefenokee refuge is home to more than 600 plant species as well as rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks.
The Okefenokee Swamp is also the headwater to the St. Marys River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Suwannee River that lets out in the Gulf of Mexico.
There’s been an “unprecedented amount” of geological and hydrologic information collected along a section of Trail Ridge, said Robert Holt, a University of Mississippi geology professor and Twin Pines consultant retained through the national firm TTL Associates. Holt performed some of the environmental evaluation for the project.
“I think this is an incredibly environmentally responsible way to approach a mining project especially in an area as environmentally sensitive as Trail Ridge,” Holt said Tuesday night.
The mining project would create about 300 permanent jobs, Twin Pines’ Ingle said. Digging could begin as early as the second quarter of 2020 if the permit is approved by the Army Corps. Of Engineers, Ingle added.
The permit application’s chances could receive a boost from national security considerations since mining sand near the swamp can provide key ingredients in producing the titanium and several other rare metals used in high-tech weaponry. President Donald Trump recently issued a directive ordering more production of rare metals used to make weapons and electronic devices.
Joy Campbell, co-owner of the Okefenokee Adventures tour operator, said she would like more scientific information on the project before taking a position.
“People should be eager to learn more about this whole project,” she said.