Bill to protect Okefenokee Swamp from mining dead in General Assembly

Aerial view of wetlands in Okefenokee
Aerial view of wetlands in Okefenokee.

Wikimedia Commons

Bipartisan legislation to ban mining near the Okefenokee Swamp has fallen by the wayside, despite the backing of some of the most powerful members of the Georgia House of Representatives.

The bill, co-sponsored by several committee chairs in the House, was on track last week for a hearing before the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee. But the hearing didn’t happen, and supporters were told the committee will not take it up this year.

“The enthusiasm that appeared on the part of the legislature … led us to believe we had a real good chance to get it through the House,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “There’s plenty of strong sentiment for protecting the Okefenokee Swamp from any kind of threats.”

Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals is seeking permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to mine titanium dioxide at a site in Charlton County three miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest blackwater swamp in North America.

The project’s opponents say the mine could damage adjacent wetlands and permanently affect the hydrology of the entire 438,000-acre swamp by lowering the water level.

“The swamp will continue to face future mining threats unless we solve this issue legislatively,” said Josh Marks, a lawyer with a long history working to protect the Okefenokee. He was involved during the 1990s in stopping DuPont’s plans for a titanium mine near the swamp.

“It’s time to permanently prohibit mining next to the Okefenokee once and for all,” Marks said.

But Rep. Lynn Smith, chairman of the Natural Resources & Environment Committee, said the bill is premature when the EPD is still reviewing the permit applications and has yet to open a 60-day public comment period.

“That really has to happen first,” said Smith, R-Newnan.

Smith suggested nonprofit conservation groups interested in protecting the Okefenokee Swamp should consider applying to preserve the land.

The Chemours Company, an American chemical company spun off of DuPont, announced last month it will not buy the proposed mine or acquire Twin Pines Minerals.

While Twin Pines officials said the Chemours commitment to protect the Okefenokee will not affect its plans for the mine, Marks called it an important development.

“[It] shows that there’s no business case for Twin Pines’ project,” he said. “Hopefully Twin Pines will get the message and abandon its risky scheme once and for all.”

This story was provided by WABE content partners The Current and Capitol Beat News Service.