Time running out for public to weigh in on Okefenokee area mining plan

By: - September 11, 2019 8:56 am

Visitors canoe along the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia near the Florida state line. Contributed by Joy Campbell

A proposed mining operation near the Okefenokee Swamp is sparking a great deal of interest with thousands of organizations and people sounding off on the plan ahead of tomorrow’s public comment deadline.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers logged more than 12,000 public comments on the Twin Pines Minerals’ application to conduct deep-surface mining along Trail Ridge, an eastern barrier of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The lack of a detailed plan to mine for titanium dioxide and other metals near the Florida line continues to leave people in communities near the Okefenokee, across Georgia, and beyond clamoring for Twin Pines to provide more information.

Many of them say they were not satisfied with the limited information the company revealed on displays and consultants detailed at two public meetings held near the swamp in August. The Alabama-based company says it still has lots more work to do on the study before it is ready to file with federal and state regulators.

The 12,000 or so comments turned in by Monday morning was significantly more than the typical project gets in the Savannah district, spokesman Billy Birdwell said.

(The Corps is taking public comment on the plan through through Sept. 12 (email: [email protected]).

The federal agency will review the comments and the Twin Pines plans before it decides whether to approve or deny the permit, or require an Environmental Impact Statement that could delay the Twin Pines plan to start work by spring 2020.

“We take as much time as we need to make these kinds of decisions,” Birdwell said.

He added that despite the high volume of comments, any decision will rely on an objective environmental assessment. 

“This is not a referendum,” he said about the public comments. “It’s not how many we get on one side versus how many we get on the other side.”

Thursday’s end to the public comment period closes out months of public input that started July 12 and was extended once this summer.

Twin Pines is asking the Corps. for a permit to mine 2,414 acres, although the company is contemplating digging in 12,000 acres.

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 Charlton County Commission gave the project a non-binding vote of support for the mining project last month, citing the impoverished county’s need for jobs. 

Twin Pines says its project of about six years will create as many as 300 jobs that pay an average of $14-$20 per hour.

Twin Pines’ consultants say their studies collected an “unprecedented amount” of geological and hydrologic information about the proposed mining site. They say once the mining operation is wrapped up, the soil will be reapplied and the strip-mined area will heal.

However, environmental reports need to be made public to show that is the case, said Mark Woodall, vice-chairman of the Sierra Club of Georgia.

The Sierra Club is working with the Southern Environmental Law Center to submit comments to turn in before Thursday’s deadline.

“If the hydrology of Trail Ridge is destroyed, you can lose the whole swamp,” Woodall said. “Our basic concern is they’ve not shown they’re not going to harm the hydrology of the Okefenokee, an international treasure.”

The Georgia Conservancy is raising concerns in its comments about the potential ecological threat to the ridge and the streams that discharge into the swamp and the St. Marys and Suwannee rivers.

“The combination of noise, light, and other impacts for wildlife and visitors to the area from mining on this site is of significant concern,” Charles McMillan III, national resource director, wrote in the conservancy’s letter to the Corps. “The Okefenokee is essential to the economy of Charlton and nearby counties. The citizens of the area should have a chance to learn more and discuss the impacts.”

A February memo from The U.S. Fish and Wildlife to the Corps describes “substantial risk” to the Okefenokee if the mining project moves forward. In the memo, Fish and Wildlife warned that mining at the swamp’s edge could harm the entire expanse of the refuge, and digging deep into the soil could alter “water holding and water movement.”

A spokesman for the federal agency said concerns expressed in the memo still apply as the comment period is set to expire.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Stanley Dunlap
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.