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
The Okefenokee Swamp just made its second appearance on a national most endangered rivers list as conservationists fear that a proposed strip-mining operation proposed nearby will drain the swamp that straddles the Georgia-Florida border.
The largest blackwater swamp in the United States is ranked by American Rivers as the 10th most endangered river in its annual report that seeks to raise awareness about wetlands, streams and other waterways that are threatened as key decisions loom that could determine the rivers’ fates. The expansive half-million acres of wetlands that encompass much of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge were most recently on the endangered list in 2020, just months after Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals unveiled plans to dig for heavy minerals near the edge of the swamp.
Georgia River Network Executive Director Rena Ann Peck said the Okefenokee’s endangered ranking reinforces worries of nature enthusiasts and others concerned about the long-term viability of the swamp. She urged the public to continue sending letters and emails asking Georgia Environmental Protection Division officials to not approve the permits for a mining site located three miles from the edge of the swamp along Trail Ridge that separates the swamp and the St. Mary’s River.
The Georgia EPD opened a 60-day public comment period on Jan. 19. After reviewing the Twin Pines land use permit and responding to public comments, the state agency will decide whether the mining operation will move ahead or face another setback in the process that started in summer 2019.
St. Marys Riverkeeper says protecting the 130-mile waterway that flows from the Okefenokee swamp to Cumberland Island National Seashore is crucial.
“The company has failed to present compelling evidence that its operation will not irrevocably harm the region’s delicate ecosystem,” Executive Director Emily Floore said. “The St. Marys River watershed is too important to risk for experimental and untested mining methods.”
Numerous scientists and conservationists have expressed concerns that mining near the edge of the swamp would cause irreversible damage to hundreds of rare animals and plants.
“People across the state and nation don’t want to see the swamp threatened by this mine,” Peck said in a statement. “The Okefenokee is an irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind wilderness; it should not be risked to obtain common minerals that can be more safely secured elsewhere.”
Concerns about the threat of the Twin Pines’ project have been registered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. A bipartisan group of A A A large and bipartisan group of Georgia legislators endorsed a bill this year to ban mining on Trail Ridge, designed to block Twin Pines from expanding its mining footprint closer to the swamp. The legislation stalled this winter, but can be revived in the 2024 session.
Scientists from universities across the Southeast predict that the mining project will alter the hydrological divide that regulates the water level of the swamp as millions of gallons of water are pumped out.
Conversely, a scientific analysis conducted by a consultant for Twin Pines found that mining on the site, located three miles from the border of the refuge, can be safely done.
Twin Pines plans to dig sand pits as deep as 50 feet on 582 acres of Trail Ridge in search of zirconium and titanium dioxide.
A dragline excavator will be used to dig for the minerals in phases of a couple acres each. A 20-day timeframe would be set aside to fill the pits with soil and vegetation so that the shape and elevation are maintained, according to the mining company.
The company’s aim is to prove that mining can be done safely in a first stage before seeking other permits from EPD to expand the strip mine closer to the swamp’s boundaries.
“Of highest importance to us is protection of the Okefenokee and the surrounding environment,” Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said earlier this month. “Aside from the altruistic belief that it is the right thing to do, it is just good business. There is no way we would do anything to harm the swamp which could expose us to regulatory action and put our investment in this project at risk.”
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