Meetings last week surface debate: Could mining drain Okefenokee?

A plan to mine sand near the Okefenokee swamp draws protesters from Georgia, nearby Florida and North Carolina Tuesday to a public information meeting hosted by Twin Pines Minerals. Photo by Stanley Dunlap

A key dispute emerged from last week’s South Georgia meetings to learn more details of a company’s plans to mine near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Some environmental group members at the meetings hosted by Twin Pines Minerals say that the Trail Ridge site of the proposed mining acts as a natural dam to the swamp and if disrupted could drain the swamp dry.

Rena Stricker, executive director of the Georgia River Network, was among the attendees of last week’s meetings who said they are worried that the swamp could be drained by the mining. 

“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

The company contends Trail Ridge is instead a hydraulic barrier to groundwater flow. At the ridge’s high point the water flows east to the swamp and west to the St. Marys River.

So is Trail Ridge a natural dam to the swamp? 

“It’s not necessarily a dam,” said Fredrick Rich, a recently retired geology professor at Georgia Southern University. “The swamp would probably be there with or without Trail Ridge but the ridge almost certainly enhances the capability of the swamp’s water supply to stay within the basin. “Any attempt to cut through Trail Ridge would certainly be destructive of the swamp,” he said.

Twin Pines is seeking to mine sandy soil for titanium dioxide 2.7 miles southeast of the refuge, near the Georgia-Florida border.

Twin Pines asked the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers for a permit to mine 2,414 acres, although the company is studying the impact of digging in 12,000 acres.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 600 plant species as well as rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks.

The swamp is 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.

The basin that the swamp is in is a low-point in the topography of that area. Trail Ridge keeps the swamp confined so that the only drainage out of the swamp toward the Atlantic Ocean is through the St. Marys River, Rich said. 

“St. Mary’s is tiny as far as rivers go,” he said. “It’s nowhere near being able to drain the swamp. The swamp is actually pretty well self-contained hydrologically.” 

The mining proposal elicited a February memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stating that it could pose a “substantial risk” to the Okefenokee.

Twin Pines counters that its mining will not harm the swamp and that wetlands around the mining area will only be temporarily impacted before they are restored.

The digging could begin as early as the spring of 2020 if the permit is approved. 

The project would result in roughly 300 jobs that would last at least eight years and pay an average of $14-$20 per hour, according to Twin Pines.

The company is still wrapping up the final environmental study on the project and will release it once it’s completed, although no date has been given on when that will happen.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle has said more environmental details would be submitted some time after the public comment period ends on Sept. 12.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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