Time running short for public to comment on Okefenokee mining plan

Okefenokee Swamp
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is close to a 900-acre site Alabama's Twin Pines wants to mine for heavy metals. Photo from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Conservation groups, wildlife lovers and anyone with a fondness for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge can still officially chime in on a revised federal application to mine heavy minerals near one of the country’s most treasured natural resources.

The U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers Savannah District is accepting public comments through Monday, April 13 on Twin Pines Minerals’ request to mine 900 acres located near the Okefenokee Swamp. This year the mining company submitted hydrological reports and a new application that proposes mining 900 acres for titanium and zirconium along a 2,400 acres tract of land. 

“We believe it fully addresses points raised in our discussions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about reducing the size of our permit area,” Twin Pines president Steve Ingle said in a statement. “We look forward to their response and to moving ahead with mining our property in a manner that is environmentally responsible and produces good-paying jobs for the people of Charlton County.”

More than 20,000 public comments were turned in for Twin Pines’ 2019 permit application. The public comment opportunity restarted, since this is a considered a new project by Twin Pines, said Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah district.

The Georgia Conservancy continues to call for an Environmental Impact Statement before an application is considered so that the project gets a thorough, independent review.

There has not been enough time to review the complicated scientific reports turned in this year by Twin Pines for what’s being called a “demonstration” project, said Charles McMillan, natural resources director for the Georgia Conservancy.

He said the statewide member-supported organization still carries major concerns about the potential damage to a refuge that is home to more than 600 plant species as well as rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks.

“This is awfully big, for a demonstration project on something that is 900 acres, half of which is wetlands, is cause for concern and a lot of these concerns go back to other Trail Ridge mining that’s been going on for the last 50 years in Florida, between the Florida-Georgia line,” McMillan said.

In the earlier proposal, Twin Pines said it intended to study the potential impact of mining along 12,000 acres.

Suwannee Riverkeeper John Quarterman isn’t buying into Twin Pines assurances about the Charlton County mine leaving the groundwater, surface streams and swamp in the same shape as before mining starts.

“Why would we think (Twin Pines) would stop with just a nibble of Trail Ridge in Georgia?” he said. “Our Okefenokee Swamp with its fishing, boating, birding, and hunting nearby, is much more important than any mine, especially since it is the headwaters of the Suwannee River and the St Marys River.” 

Over the last 50 years, various mines stretching from north of the Okefenokee Swamp south into Florida have not been the best stewards of the waterways and surrounding land, McMillan said.

Situated about 70 miles south of the proposed Charlton County mine is another Twin Pines dig where titanium dioxide is also found. The prized mineral is often used to create white paint. 

The company informed Florida officials in February of its plans to lay off 40 workers at its Starke mine by the end of June.

The potential closure of that mine would not impact the status of the Charlton County project, said a company spokesman, who added that the company will evaluate the viability of the Starke operation this summer to determine if it should continue operating.

Twin Pines has said their previous project could bring up to 400 permanent jobs to the region. The project also received the backing of the Charlton County Commission.

Information on Twin Pines’ mining proposal

The Twin Pines’ mining proposal can be found online at https://go.usa.gov/xvCh6.

https://www.sas.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/Public-Notices/Article/2111505/sas-2018-00554-sp-har/

The public comment period ends on Monday. Comments can be sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah district by email [email protected].

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.