A Swamp and the Mine Next Door
One of the most iconic natural wonders in Georgia is the Okefenokee Swamp, 680 square miles of black water swamp. Spread out across the southeast corner of our state, it has long been a fixture in our state because of its beautiful landscape and its vast array of wildlife and plants. But it has been in the spotlight recently because of a proposal to mine titanium from land adjacent to the Swamp.
Meet the Swamp
The first thing to know is that the Swamp is gorgeous: tall old growth cypress, marsh, prairie grassland, and dark, still water. It has captured the hearts and imaginations of generations and is home and host to thousands of varieties of flora and fauna. The Okefenokee was formed when the Atlantic Ocean, which covered much of the area of the present day Swamp, began to recede, leaving a bowl depression that filled with water and was held in on the east by a sand bar or sand dune, now known as the Trail Ridge which extends south into Florida. The Swamp had been occupied by various native American tribes down through the centuries. And when the removal of tribes from the eastern part of the country began in the 1800s, it was used as a refuge to hide out from authorities. There is still evidence of native American mounds in the Swamp. In 1937, then President Roosevelt designated close to 400,000 acres for preservation as a National Wildlife Refuge to be managed by the U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Division. The Swamp is one of the world’s largest intact, freshwater ecosystems. It is an important tourist and recreational site for our state, hosting around 600,000 visitors per year for boating, hiking, and birding. Interestingly it is the only body of water that drains into both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Marys River to the east, and the Suwannee River to the west.
The Mining Proposal
The Trail Ridge, which runs north and south along the eastern border of the Swamp has been the target of intense pressure for mining operations for close to 50 years because its soil contains titanium, a mineral used to whiten products like paint and toothpaste. In the 1990s, DuPont Chemical Company tried to obtain permits to strip mine titanium in large tracts of the Trail Ridge. It was stopped by a huge public outcry and opposition by key political figures such as then Governor Roy Barnes and U.S. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. Currently, an Alabama company Twin Pines Mining is trying to obtain a permit to strip mine on 577 acres of property that comes within about 400 feet of the southeast edge of the Refuge.
The titanium extraction process involves digging down to a depth of 50 feet, putting the soil through a water rinsing process to separate the titanium from the soil, and then replacing the soil. In 2019, Twin Pines applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers to mine a much larger tract of the Trail Ridge. At the time, the wetlands on the property came under regulation of the federal Clean Water Act. But in July 2020, the Trump administration determined that a vast number of wetlands around the country, including those on the Trail Ridge, did not meet the requirements to be regulated by the federal government. Thus, all permitting for mining on the Trail Ridge came under the purview of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
Environmentalists and lovers of the Swamp are raising concerns about this stripmining project and the permitting process. Twin Pines says that they will be pumping as much as 1.4 million gallons of water per day from the Florida aquifer for the separation process. This is likely to affect the water levels in the Swamp. “We know that ground water will move in the direction of holes, away from the swamp. The Trail Ridge serves as a dam for the swamp and any disruption to the ridge could compromise the swamp water levels” says Rena Ann Peck, ecologist and executive director of the Georgia River Network. Twin Pines admits they will be drilling into the Floridan aquifer water table for the water they will need. This could threaten not only the water level of the swamp, but also wells in the nearby area.
“The mining process will turn a hard-packed, impermeable sand ridge into something closer to oatmeal. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s expert hydrologist, this is likely to allow groundwater to leak eastward out of the Swamp,” observes Josh Marks, an Atlanta-based environmental attorney who has closely followed the Trail Ridge Mining project and who was a leader of the successful fight to stop a similar strip mine proposed by DuPont in the 1990s.
Marks is also concerned about the large peat deposits that have collected at the southern base of the swamp for tens of thousands of years. These peat beds sequester millions of tons of carbon. “If mining lowers the Swamp's water level, the peat beds would be abnormally dried out and exposed to catastrophic fires that would pump tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to a climate change disaster of epic proportions," he adds.
Twin Pines Mining
Twin Pines Mining is based in Alabama, but incorporated in Delaware. One of the principals of the company, Steve Ingles, was involved in mining operations when he worked for Drummond Coal in Alabama. Drummond is a large mine operator that has a history of misrepresentations and environmental missteps. Later, Ingles and Twin Pines business partner Ray Bean were involved in titanium mining in Stark, Florida in the southern part of the Trail Ridge. These two men also own Georgia Renewable Power that operates biomass plants in Madison and Franklin Counties.These plants have had numerous problems including air and water pollution and a massive fish kill.
Twin Pines seems to be working pretty hard to get their operation approved. While permit applications were before the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, they reported spending over $200,000 lobbying then Senator David Perdue, and meeting with the Corps to track progress of their permits and the redefinition of the Trail Ridge wetlands. Once the property was deregulated in the fall of 2020, and Sen. Perdue lost in the January 5 runoff, they turned their attention to the permits required by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. Twin Pines had 12 lobbyists registered in Georgia during this last legislative session. A key legislative committee that oversees the Georgia EPD is the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment, chaired by Sen.Tyler Harper. During the last several campaign reporting periods, Twin Pines contributed tens of thousands of campaign contributions to members of that committee. Interestingly, they didn’t contribute to the chair, Sen. Harper. But they did hire his younger brother Ashton as one of their lobbyists, paying him $95,000 between July 2019 and the end of 2020.
“Twin Pines is aggressively using the political system to achieve its objectives,” Marks observes. It has spent heavily on campaign contributions to and lobbying of, a host of federal and elected officials and currently has at least a dozen lobbyists on its payroll. This despite being a company with no income and no active operations in Georgia. We can’t let Twin Pines in essence buy permission to operate next to one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders."
“Twin Pines and its executives have a long track record of misrepresentation and pollution in Georgia, Florida and Alabama,” Marks adds. “The bottom line is they can’t be trusted to cleanly operate in the middle of a barren desert much less next to a world class natural treasure like the Okefenokee.”
A Call to Action
Because of the risk to the Swamp, environmentalists and others who love the Swamp have rallied to speak out against the titanium mine proposal. The Okefenokee Protection Alliance is asking citizens to send comments supporting the Swamp to both Governor Kemp and Georgia regulators. Georgia Riverkeeper Peck observes, “We love and protect our rivers, but if they are polluted, we can clean them up and they keep flowing. The Okefenokee is different. If its water table is eroded, the whole swamp could disappear. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen.”