Environmentalists bank on state regulators to stop Okefenokee mine

By: - June 22, 2021 3:00 am

The president of Twin Pines Minerals says it’s mining proposal near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia remains a priority despite ongoing governmental and legal challenges. The company unveiled its plans nearly two years ago at a public meeting in Folkston. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder (file photo)

Nearly two years after Alabama’s Twin Pines Minerals publicly unveiled plans to mine heavy minerals near the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, the company says the project is still a top priority despite potential legal hurdles, and changing environmental rules that loom ahead of its proposal.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said last week his company would not rush sending the final pieces of its application to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division even after the Biden administration announced this month that it will revisit a rule that removed federal protections from wetlands surrounding the proposed south Georgia mining site.

But if the rule changes made during the previous two presidential administrations are any indication, it could take several years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s newest version takes effect.

That’s why environmentalists who oppose Twin Pines’ plans are banking on the state agency to deny the permit or for a federal court to rule that former President Donald Trump’s revisions to the Clean Water Act are illegal. 

Georgia’s environmental regulators aren’t holding Twin Pines to a deadline to complete additional hydraulic analysis on a shallow aquifer and provide other details about the project in its application. 

“We have received a number of questions asking if we are expediting our response to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division in light of recent pronouncements from Washington, and the answer is ‘no,'” Ingle said in a statement. 

“Our intention is to address their directives relative to our permit applications thoroughly and completely,” he said. “We will use whatever time it takes to demonstrate to their satisfaction that we can mine titanium and other heavy minerals from Trail Ridge and do so in a way that protects the Okefenokee Refuge and surrounding environs.”

Many advocates are focusing much of their attention on the state-level process that would include the agency soliciting more public feedback on the mining project that the EPD has already received several thousand comments on. 

Rena Ann Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, said repealing the Trump-era water rules is good news for the wetlands that lost protection under the previous administration but is “not an automatic fix at all” when it comes to the controversial plans to mine near the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.

“It’s still pedal to the metal,” Peck said. “Because it’s still in EPD’s hands.”

For the Southern Environmental Law Center, it’s imperative to win its U.S. District Court case against Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule.

The government’s response to the center’s demand for summary judgment is due this month.

“The Biden administration rule won’t reverse the removal of federal clean water protections, only a court ruling will,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney and leader of the environmental law center’s Clean Water Defense Initiative. “That’s why we remain in court fighting against the unlawful rule.”

Twin Pines mine remains a priority

In August 2019, about 150 environmentalists, government officials, and project supporters gathered in Folkston for the first public hearing. They toured information stations set up by Twin Pines as its consultants offered walk-through presentations.  

Throughout the planning process, which included Twin Pines downsizing from its initial plans, the company has conducted studies it says show minimal impact to the Okefenokee if it digs for a mineral used as the white pigment found in paint and paper and for other purposes. 

The mining would initially occur about three miles from the refuge along Trail Ridge, a one-mile-wide and 100-mile long ridge that forms the hydrological divide between the Okefenokee and St. Marys River.

Ingle reiterated Friday the importance of pulling off the 570-acre mining demonstration without threatening the Okefenokee.

“This project remains a top priority for Twin Pines, and it is in our best interests to do what the EPD instructs us to do now and in the future should we be granted approval to move forward with mining,” Ingle said Friday. “It is no secret that titanium is an important mineral for national security and is becoming more prominent in a number of green energy applications.”

Many conservationists continue to say they worry about what will happen if the mine expands to thousands of acres around the swamp, home to several threatened or endangered species. And while the EPA’s new Clean Water Act rule won’t conflict with  the initial phase, it could have a lasting impact on federal protections of waterways for years to come, Moser said.

Michael Regan, the Biden administration’s EPA administrator, announced this month the agency will reverse the Trump-era water rules after determining changes are causing “significant environmental degradation” by reducing the types of regulated streams and wetlands.

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, under the Trump rule, more than 160,000 acres of wetlands in the Chattahoochee River basin alone are no longer under federal protection.

“Many more streams and wetlands—like those slated to be destroyed by the Twin Pines mine—could be lost while the administration conducts its rulemaking,” Moser said. “Every decision made under the rule to exclude streams, wetlands, and other waters from clean water protections generally creates a five-year safe harbor for polluters to destroy those waters.” 

The EPA’s recent announcement, however, is unsettling for the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation, which favors Trump’s rule that it says is environmentally conscious while clearing up much confusion about what the 1972 Clean Water Act allows.

During President Barack Obama’s tenure, a rule change greatly expanded the number of streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water protected under the act and brought about ambiguity. 

“We are deeply concerned that the EPA plans to reverse the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which puts the future of responsible protections at risk,” Farm Bureau President and Georgia farmer Zippy Duvall said. “We expected extensive outreach, but (the EPA’s) announcement fails to recognize the concerns of farmers and ranchers. 

Because of the high stakes, the rulemaking process will take a while and likely will face further legal challenges, said Mindy Goldstein, an environmental law professor at Emory University. 

“If it were easy, we wouldn’t have failed so many times,” Goldstein said. “This is going to be hard. I think the commitment to bringing a diverse set of stakeholders together at the outset to really understand the concerns, the expectation of all the stakeholders is heartening.”

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report 

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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.

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