Critics go online to question Okefenokee Swamp area mining plans

The Alabama mining company proposing to dig into soil near the Okefenokee Swamp pitched its project at a virtual public meeting this week. Twin Pines Minerals unveiled plans at an in-person meeting in Folkston last summer. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The Alabama mining company proposing to dig heavy minerals out of soil near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge pitched their project at a virtual public meeting this week and environmentalists online didn’t like the project much more than when they saw it up close and in person.

Twin Pines Minerals consultants said this week an innovative technique will help prevent its proposed titanium mine from damaging the wildlife and natural resources surrounding the south Georgia retreat for nature lovers.

The three-hour online hearing was open for public questions, although some complained it seemed the mining company’s consultants attempted to run out the clock that should have been reserved for the public. And as they have since the plan was revealed last summer, critics say they doubt the consultants’ models that predict strip mining won’t lower the water level in the area of the Okefenokee Swamp’s Trail Ridge.

The Georgia Conservancy and Southern Environmental Law Center are still calling for the engineering corps to require an extensive Environmental Impact Statement on the project.  

Other scientific experts say Twin Pines’ models are incomplete and should not be used to determine the potential harm mining might cause along Trail Ridge, said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the SELC.

“When you have those types of controversies, that is the time that an (Environmental Impact Statement) needs to be done,” Sapp said. “When the answer is not clear, that’s why you bring in a third party, and they take a hard look at the potential impacts.”

Consultants hired by the Alabama-based company that specialize in hydrology and geology made their case Wednesday during a virtual hearing hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency overseeing the fate of their application. Twin Pines proposes to mine a section of Trail Ridge about 2.7 miles from the blackwater wildlife refuge along the Florida-Georgia border.

However, the consultants’ claims didn’t ease much of the skepticism that’s been coming from environmentalists since Twin Pines officials unveiled a larger version of the mine at public meetings last summer.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the Savannah engineering district hosting its first-ever virtual meeting instead of the usual in-person presentation. Twin Pines consultants talked for much of the three-hour hearing, allowing about 30 minutes for questions.

Twin Pines Minerals this year trimmed its plans to mine 900 acres for rare heavy minerals from its prior plan to mine about 2,400 acres. The company has said it is studying the potential to mine about 12,000 acres along Trail Ridge.

One of the most frequent questions for the consultants concerned what steps the federal engineering corps is taking to ensure there is independent analysis performed on the project.

The Army Corps can rely on in-house experts to review the mitigation plan and some other areas, said coastal branch chief William Rutlin.

“However, some of these studies, like the hydrology studies, for instance, we may reach out to a sister agency like EPA and say, ‘Hey, we need you to look at these reports to provide an independent analysis and verification of the findings,’” he said.

Twin Pines is planning to use “innovative” dragline mining technique as part of a process that will allow reclamation of the site to begin within days of mining instead of several months or longer, said Chris Stanford, a staff geologist with engineering firm TTL.

He said the downsized “demonstration” project would show heavy mineral sand mining conducted in an environmentally responsible manner. That could give Twin Pines an argument to increase the size of the mine in the future.

“Due to the concerns with dredging and dry mining, Twin Pines is proposing to conduct this demonstration project to show the efficiency, and minimal environmental effects,” Stanford said. “The demonstration project location was selected as the most practical location furthest from the refuge with the least amount of environmental impacts.”

Trail Ridge is one mile wide and 100 miles long, separating the Okefenokee basin and swamp for the coastal plains. The ridge forms a hydrological divide between Okefenokee Swamp and St. Marys River.

Twin Pines wants to mine the area for titanium oxide, which is primarily used for the white pigment found in paint and paper. The area’s minerals also are useful in making a variety of medical instruments, such as pacemakers.

Charles McMillan, natural resource director for the Georgia Conservancy, credited the Corps for holding the hearing, even given the limited time given for questions.

“Frankly, I got more out of it than I did in most public hearings because you were able to watch the flow of some of the comments and get the temperature of the room,” McMillan said. “It didn’t do much to change people’s minds, but I don’t put that as much on the Corps as I do Twin Pines.”

Sapp, on the other hand, said it appeared Twin Pines’ experts wanted to use up the entire time presenting their information to limit time for questions.

“They gave more detail about the project than I’ve ever seen in any presentation they have ever given,” he said. “It was obvious they were taking their time so they wouldn’t have to face any hard questions.”

Information on Twin Pines’ mining proposal

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

The extended public comment period ends on May 28. 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.