Georgia may allow land mines near swamps in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

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FOLKSTON, Ga. — Charlene Carter’s family has spent generations in and around the Okefenokee Swamp.

That water, stained with tannins, is effectively part of her blood. Hundreds of bird species are her eternal soundtrack. The maze of narrow canals, haunted cypress trees and ever-present crocodiles are the backdrop for many memories.

Carter now runs a campground and cafe on the edge of the 640-square-mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest intact blackwater wetland in North America. She is keen to see this land remain wild and protected, and considers herself one of the outspoken opponents of a titanium mine being planned just outside its borders. Masu.

“I don’t care what they say. I have a lot to lose,” said Carter, 39.

In this small corner of southeastern Georgia, a major battle is brewing over a proposed mine that recently inched closer to approval.

Twin Pines Minerals, the Alabama-based company that operates the mine, has promised that the investment will expand the local tax base and bring hundreds of good-paying jobs to areas of high poverty. The group insists that extracting titanium dioxide, which is widely used as a pigment in paints, sunscreens and a variety of other products, will not leave permanent scars on the land or threaten beloved marshes. ing.

But a broad and vociferous coalition of environmental groups, scientists, lawmakers and other citizens, not to mention the Biden administration, has warned that drilling plans along the mineral-rich area known as Trail Ridge are dangerous. But it’s also reckless.

“We’re not against mining,” said Bill Sapp, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s just ridiculous to build a mine right on the edge of a national treasure like Okefenokee.”

He said Americans should be “just as wary of mining near pristine wetlands as we are of endangering the integrity of places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.”

The battle along the Georgia-Florida border has been going on for five years. However, the conflict is entering a critical stage.

Last month, the Georgia Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft permit that, if finalized, would allow the project to move forward. In response to more than 78,000 public comments received last year, the agency said it raised many concerns and believed the current proposal “should have minimal impact” on wetlands. Partially written.

Regulators will take public comments again until April 9th.

“This is a defining month,” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park.

The organization leads educational tours and supports the U.S. government’s efforts to have the refuge listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Supporters say the designation will bring global visibility and an influx of tourism dollars.

The unrest surrounding the mine has put this unique landscape and the communities around it under an unfamiliar microscope.

“We are a remote swamp in southern Georgia,” said Michael Lusk, who manages the refuge on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But interest is exploding. And not just locally, but nationally and internationally as well.”

“A very unusual swamp”

“Everything we see around us is old ocean floor,” Rusk says, standing by the water’s edge on a sunny late winter morning.

Okefenokee was formed by a saucer-shaped depression left behind when the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, and is now a shallow, vast, mysterious swamp fed almost entirely by rainwater. .

This marsh is home to an incredible diversity of life, from black bears and red-cockaded woodpeckers to black gum trees and carnivorous plants with names like throbbing pitcher and golden trumpet. It is the source of two rivers, the Suwannee River and the St. Mary’s River. And vast amounts of carbon are stored in vast peat deposits, formed by the slow decomposition of plants and up to 15 feet deep in some places.

Human history is also long, diverse, and complex.

The indigenous people called this the “trembling earth” because of the unstable peat mats that shook and rippled when stepped on.

Over time, the tribes that once lived in this swamp, such as the Seminoles and Muscogees, were driven out. The Suwannee Canal Company purchased the land and, beginning in 1891, spent a number of years trying unsuccessfully to drain it and turn it into farmland.It was later taken over by a lumber company and removed. There are over 400 million board feet of timber, most of which is cypress.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge after the federal government purchased the land.

In the generations since then, the marsh has recovered and remained largely undisturbed.

“It’s essentially the same as when European settlers arrived in the United States,” Rusk said.

Twin Pines is not the first company to focus on Trail Ridge, an ancient dune that runs along the eastern edge of the wetland. It is a place with large reserves of titanium dioxide and other minerals.

In the 1990s, DuPont pursued plans to mine titanium dioxide across tens of thousands of acres in the region.

Then, as now, the federal government worked with environmental groups, scientists, and local residents to fight the plan.

Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, visited in April 1997 and declared the mine and Okefenokee “incompatible.”

“Titanium is a common mineral, but Okefenokee is a very unusual wetland,” Babbitt said that day.

DuPont ultimately abandoned the project and donated 16,000 acres for conservation.

More than 20 years have passed and history repeats, and does not repeat.

In 2019, Twin Pines initially sought permission to mine approximately 2,400 acres near the southeast corner of the wetland. The company has since amended its request and is now seeking permission to operate on 582 acres, much smaller than DuPont had sought.

The company said in a statement that it sees “no similarities” between its plans and DuPont’s.

Twin Pines has vowed to mine only a small portion at a time, not to dig deeper than 50 feet, and to operate within 4.6 miles of the wetland. Typical jobs pay $60,000, well above the local average. They promise to “leave the land better than when we found it,” including planting native pines and donating some for conservation.

Moreover, the company claims that protecting the surrounding ecosystem is just good business.

“Common sense would dictate that the company would not jeopardize the hundreds of millions of dollars it has invested by not complying with environmental regulations,” Twin Pines said in a statement.

Such assurances have done little to allay ongoing skepticism.

Critics fear the mine could disrupt ecotourism around the refuge, which some estimates draw more than 800,000 visitors a year. They question whether promised jobs will be given to local residents and whether the more than 1.4 million gallons of groundwater pumped daily by the project will fundamentally change the marsh’s hydrology. . They fear that if approved, Twin Pines could seek to expand its footprint in the coming years, but that would require further permits.

The Biden administration has made its position of opposition clear.

In a letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the proposed mine “poses an unacceptable risk to the long-term hydrology” of the wetland. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently notified the state of its intention to assert federally guaranteed water rights in the preserve, but Twin Pines President Steve Engle called the claim “completely meaningless” in a statement. called.

Scientists such as C. Rhett Jackson, a professor of hydrology at the University of Georgia, They questioned the company’s scientific assessment and argued that the use of such large amounts of groundwater could triple the frequency of both severe droughts and wildfires in landscapes vulnerable to them. .

“If you take a drought-sensitive system and remove water from it, you end up making the drought even worse. It’s that simple,” Jackson said. “It’s bad for the marsh, it’s bad for recreation, it’s bad for neighboring landowners. … To me, this is a terrible place.”

Although these sentiments are widespread, they are not universal.

A bill aimed at protecting Okefenokee from future mine expansion has stalled multiple times in the Georgia General Assembly despite bipartisan support.

The Charlton County Board of Commissioners, where the mine is located, passed a resolution in 2019 expressing support for the project, despite opposition from other municipalities in the area.

Charlton County Commissioner Drew Jones believes too many people are “reflexively opposed.”

He said everyone is deeply concerned about Okefenokee, but at the same time Folkestone’s hospital closed 10 years ago and emergency workers are understaffed. There are broken sidewalks, crumbling roads, and water treatment plants in need of modernization.

“This community is in dire need of economic development,” said Jones, who believes the mine could provide a meaningful boost despite pushback from many opponents in Atlanta and Washington.

“These people will go home, but we will all remain and the problems will remain,” he said.

What about environmental concerns?

“Do we need a ton of surveillance? Absolutely. … If it’s not safe, shut it down,” Jones said. But he said if state regulators determine Twin Pines is eligible for a permit, construction of the mine should be allowed.

That kind of thing might happen.

In August 2022, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers settled a lawsuit brought by Twin Pines, giving up regulatory oversight of the current proposal and leaving key decisions in Georgia’s hands.

In the latest draft approval, state regulators emphasized their responsibility to comply with the state’s open pit mining laws.

“If the application meets the requirements… a permit will be issued,” the agency wrote.

“Why would you take that chance?”

On a recent evening, the state held another public hearing before making the final permit decision.

For three hours, nearly 100 people spoke passionately against the mine, and hundreds more listened, but not a single person spoke in favor.

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney who has fought mining near wetlands for decades, said the draft permit is a “death warrant” for the Okefenokee Nation. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he warned.

University students, grandparents, scientists, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts and local residents have also launched similar petitions asking state officials to halt the project.

They cited the Bible, the Torah, and hydrological research from the University of Georgia. They described Okefenokee as “majestic,” “sacred,” and “precious.” They called the idea of ​​mining anywhere near it “irresponsible,” “heartbreaking” and “short-sighted.”

They asked the same question one after another. “Why take the risk?”

It was the same question the Rev. Antwon Nixon asked a few days ago, in much calmer surroundings, as the sun set orange and red over the Okefenokee River.

Mr. Nixon, who grew up in Folkestone, gazed out from the bow of a small boat on the black water, reflecting in the mirror-like surface of cypress and laurel trees drooping with Spanish moss.

Nearby, a crocodile was warming itself in the tropical sun. The cricket frog was chirping. A heron flew low over the water. A pair of American bitterns were walking through a reedy marsh looking for dinner.

Mr. Nixon, 47, came here on a school trip as a boy, but after learning about the mining project at a Juneteenth celebration a few years ago, he set foot in the swamp again. Now, the Baptist preacher has emerged as one of the most ardent opponents locally.

“It’s about stewardship,” he said. “We have a divine mission to protect and preserve the land.”

These days, he comes to Okefenokee to meditate and marvel at places of unusual light and beauty. Entering the swamp means leaving a world of concrete, cars, and flickering screens and drifting through an ancient landscape unfamiliar to most Americans.

On this night, the debate over the swamp and its future felt distant. Still, it’s unavoidable.

“Maybe they’ll mine and nothing will happen. It’s possible,” Nixon acknowledged. “But what if they’re wrong, what if something goes fatally wrong…”

“Why would you take that chance? This place is too important to risk.”

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