The Okefenokee Swamp attracts some 650,000 visits each year and is a major economic driver in Ware, Clinch and Charlton counties. Photo contributed by Joe Cook/Georgia River Network
On the same day that Gov. Brian Kemp and the Georgia Legislature proclaimed as “Okefenokee Swamp Day,” a bipartisan group of state lawmakers filed a bill Tuesday aimed at protecting the national wildlife refuge from mining operations.
As part of House Bill 1289, the lawmakers aim to prevent companies from getting state permits to mine along Trail Ridge, which serves as a barrier to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, where Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals is applying to mine heavy minerals along 570 acres, with the potential to expand to thousands more should it prove successful.
The legislation would block the state Environmental Protection Division from issuing, modifying or renewing surface mining permits on Trial Ridge for any applications submitted or revised after July 1.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor of Thomasville and co-sponsored by Savannah Republican Rep. Ron Stephens and signed by 15 other legislators.
The Twin Pines mining proposal is expected to soon open up to a 60-day public comment period once the state Environmental Protection Division completes its review of the application.
The bill states that surface mining puts the area at risk, including the wildlife, water, and the wetlands surrounding the 438,000 acres swamp, one of the largest freshwater wetlands in the world. The swamp attracts more than 650,000 visitors each year.
“Trail Ridge is a key element in the formation of continued existence of the Okefenokee Swamp,” the bill says. “It helps shape the hydrology of the area and controls drainage of the swamp to the Atlantic Ocean. Trail Ridge contains heavy mineral sands, resulting in two major surface mining proposals in the past 25 years.”
“The people of Georgia as well as state and national leaders overwhelmingly rejected the first proposal,” the bill continues. “Surface mining on Trail Ridge risks adverse impact to the wetlands, water quality and quantity, wildlife, habitat, air quality.”
But the mining plans do have the backing of the Charlton County Commission, which has said it would provide much needed jobs to the region. On Tuesday Twin Pines president Steve Ingle declined to speculate on the mining legislation.
“We are proceeding with our plans and will abide by the environmental regulations that are actually on the books and applicable to our project as we have done from day one,” he said.
More than 100,000 written comments and phone calls, mostly against the projects, have been submitted to state and federal agencies and elected officials.
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Last month, Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff sent out a statement urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to return the mining proposal back to federal review due to changes in regulations protecting waterways.
While Gov. Brian Kemp has refrained from taking a stance on the mining plans or addressing the state permit, he declared Feb. 8, 2022, as Okefenokee Swamp Day to honor the swamp’s value to the region and beyond.
On Tuesday park officials, representatives of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the business community and members of the Georgia River Network, and other swamp lovers descended on the Capitol to make their case to lawmakers and celebrate Georgia’s blackwater gem.
Located along the Georgia-Florida border, the Okefenokee wetlands are home to more than 600 plant species as well as rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks. Ecological risks and threats to the swamp’s rare beauty prompted staunch opposition when Dupont proposed a larger mine decades ago, including from then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
Georgia River Network executive director Rena Peck thanked Kemp and other legislators for showing support for the wildlife sanctuary at a critical juncture.
She said HB 1289 would also prohibit companies from putting up bonds to help cover costs of any damage associated with mining.
The (swamp) is a Garden of Eden,” Peck said. “The idea that you could have a bond that would be able to pay for humans messing up the swamp is pretty ludicrous.”
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