Local residents voice their opposition to mining project
A bill that would prohibit mining on Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has gained support from local residents who fear the potential impact of the proposed strip mining on the fragile ecosystem. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Darlene Taylor, a Republican from Thomasville, has 94 co-sponsors from both parties in the House, indicating a strong chance of passing if it reaches the floor for a vote.
The bill was introduced last year in response to the plans of Twin Pines Minerals LLC, an Alabama-based company that wants to mine for titanium dioxide and zirconium on a 582-acre site about three miles from the refuge’s border. The company claims that the mining operation would create hundreds of jobs and tax revenues for Charlton County, where the unemployment rate is higher than the state average.
However, many locals are not convinced by the company’s promises and are worried about the possible harm to the swamp, which is home to more than 600 plant species and rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks. The swamp also attracts thousands of tourists every year who enjoy its scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.
Antwon Nixon, a pastor and Folkston native, said he was shocked when he learned about the mining proposal two years ago and decided to raise awareness among his community. He collected more than 500 signatures on a petition opposing the project and visited the state Capitol recently to lobby for the bill.
“In order for Atlanta to move, the local community has to move, because the local community always moves Atlanta. So, I believe our voices in the community have to be louder,” Nixon said.
State agency resumes review of mining permit
The fate of the mining project now lies with the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which is reviewing the company’s application for a state permit. The EPD had previously issued a draft permit in December 2019, but the process was halted in August 2020 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for regulating wetlands, withdrew its jurisdiction over the project.
The Corps said it made the decision after consulting with the Muscogee Creek Nation, a Native American tribe that has ancestral ties to the land and considers it sacred. The tribe had expressed concerns about the potential disturbance of burial grounds and cultural sites by the mining activities.
The withdrawal of the Corps meant that Twin Pines had to reapply for a federal permit under a different section of the Clean Water Act, which would require more public input and environmental assessment. The company sued the Corps in October 2020, alleging that the agency had acted arbitrarily and unlawfully.
However, on Monday, the company announced that it had dropped the lawsuit and reached a settlement with the Corps, which agreed to reverse its decision and restore the state’s authority over the project. The company said it was pleased with the outcome and looked forward to working with the EPD to complete the permit process.
“This is great news for Twin Pines, for our project, and for Charlton County,” Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said in a statement. “We appreciate the Corps’ willingness to reverse itself and make things right.”
Environmental groups vow to continue fight to protect swamp
The news of the settlement was met with dismay by environmental groups, who had applauded the Corps’ intervention as a way to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from the potential impacts of mining. They said they were disappointed that the federal agency had backed down and left the decision to the state, which they accused of being too lenient and biased toward the company.
They also pointed out that the company had been fined $20,000 by the EPD in January for violating state laws while collecting soil samples for its permit application. The company had drilled 66 boreholes without obtaining the required permits and had failed to properly seal them, creating a risk of groundwater contamination.
The environmental groups said they would continue to oppose the mining project and support the bill that would ban it. They urged the public to submit comments to the EPD, which has extended the deadline until March 4, and to contact their legislators to ask them to vote for the bill.
Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, said the Okefenokee Swamp was a national treasure that needed to be protected from mining and other threats.
“It’s up to our state to protect the Okefenokee Wilderness and it always has been and always will be and we will protect our Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge by working together in private public partnership to not allow mining that would lower the water level of the already shallow swamp,” Peck said.