The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Environmentalists say they believe scaled-down plans to mine heavy minerals near the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge still poses a threat to the southeast Georgia natural treasure.
Twin Pines Minerals informed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week that it plans to resubmit a mining application after withdrawing its request to mine 2,400 acres in Charlton County.
In a statement Tuesday morning, the Alabama mining company confirmed it is reducing the scope of the mining that it detailed last summer to mine titanium oxide on the edge of the swamp and will refile an application with federal regulators.
“In an effort to be even more conservative in our approach than we were in our initial application, we have agreed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the size of the permit area and resubmit new documentation for further review and evaluation as soon as possible,” the company said.
Environmental organizations expressed skepticism, however, saying the company is likely shrinking the scope of the project in hopes of avoiding an independent environmental study.
The withdrawal came as the Alabama-based company also released its own 91-page study claiming the mining project would have little impact on the hydrologic system of the swamp and the large ridge that separates it from the St. Marys River.
Twin Pines might want to resubmit a smaller proposal to skirt an extensive Environmental Impact Statement, said Charles McMillan, natural resource director for the Georgia Conservancy.
McMillan said he expects Twin Pines to request more mining permits if they’re able to get the first one approved.
“My question is how much confidence does the company have that they’ll be able to pass the environmental scrutiny,” McMillan said Monday. “A smaller project breeds many of the same concerns.”
A company withdrawing its permit application is not unusual, said Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah district.
The Corps received about 20,000 public comments on the project last year. The wildlife refuge attracts about 600,000 visitors annually.
If Twin Pines does reapply, the extent of the changes will determine if the process resumes where it left off or starts over, Birdwell said.
“If we determine we need to go to a higher level of review, in other words an Environmental Impact Statement, then the rules for EIS have their own (public) comments period,” he said.
Twin Pines has said their project could bring several hundred permanent jobs to the region. The project also received the backing of the Charlton County Commission.
A company consultant said in August an “unprecedented amount” of geological and hydrologic information was collected on a mining operation and that the strip-mined area would eventually heal.
But for many environmental groups in Georgia, there are 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.
“Twin Pines will no doubt return with a second application designed to skirt scientific scrutiny and further review,” said Christina Hunt, southeast program representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “We will not be fooled by this strategy. The fight for Okefenokee is far from over and we will not let our guard down.”
Although Twin Pines was seeking to mine 2,400 acres, the permit application called for studying the impact on 12,000 acres on the edge of the Okefenokee. That suggests the company could be planning to expand its operations if given a foothold.
“We, at the Sierra Club, and our allies have been clear throughout that this project poses a unique threat to the Okefenokee Swamp and should be required to go through a full environmental impact statement,” said Ricky Leroux, spokesman for Sierra’s Georgia chapter.
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