Georgia lawmakers slogged through bipartisan attempts to protect Okefenokee, sinking in the end

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Georgia to kayak, hike, fish and participate in other recreational activities. (Photo contributed by Joy Campbell)

The push by a large coalition of Georgia legislators to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from mining failed this session even before legislators could vote on a panel to study ways to protect the diverse wildlife refuge.

The failure of Georgia legislators to pass bills designed to protect the Okefenokee natural resource was another blow to environmentalists who have tried to block the surface mining permit for the past several years. Twin Pines Minerals of Alabama is asking state environmental regulators to approve its plan to dig for heavy minerals three miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

An Okefenokee mining protection bill with actual teeth was filed early in the session. Thomasville Republican state Rep. Darlene Taylor’s House Bill 71, which limited the future expansion of surface mining along barrier regions of the Okefenokee Swamp, and prohibited companies — like the Alabama-based company — from modifying or renewing their mining applications. Taylor said her concern about development on the edge of the swamp stems from her years living in south Florida, where the Everglades was ravaged by modern society’s intrusions.

An eye-popping 90-plus bipartisan group of lawmakers signed on as sponsors for Taylor’s legislation. But the bill never received a vote by the House Natural Resources Committee despite already having demonstrated it had enough votes to clear the full chamber.

Earlier this month, Taylor introduced a toothless resolution with bipartisan support to set up a study committee to evaluate the value of the swamp as North America’s largest blackwater swamp. The study committee would report back to the Legislature with non-binding recommendations. But the measure stalled after being voted out of committee.

Bill supporters say the mining project could forever change the hydrology of the swamp and threaten its diverse ecology, which includes rare species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and indigo snake.

A hearing on HB 71 was held post-deadline for bills to advance through one chamber into the other in 2023.

“It was a shame that a policy that is so supported by Georgians didn’t make any headway in this legislative session,” said Ricky Leroux, spokesman for the Sierra Club of Georgia. “HB 71 would have protected Trail Ridge, which is the eastern boundary of the swamp. But we’re optimistic with so many co-sponsors, and this being a two-year session that we can organize during the offseason and build up more support and come back strong next year and try to get it passed.”

A final decision on the Twin Pines mining proposal will be made after the state Environmental Protection Division completes its review of the land use permit and responds to the public comments, EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips said.

Several other permits that need to clear regulators’ review would lead to more opportunities for public feedback before the EPD makes its final decision on the project.

Twin Pines’ permit application has generated over 100,000 public comments sent to government agencies, the overwhelming majority asking that the plans be rejected. The state agency is also reviewing documents filed by scientists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of the Interior detailing concerns about the threat the mining poses to the Okefenokee.

Georgia River Network Executive Director Rena Peck said the large volume of public comments along with statements submitted by federal agencies and a number of hydrologists are causing the agency to take much longer than usual to complete the permitting process.

“It is out of the ordinary because normally EPD doesn’t have to deal with something this big,” Peck said. “The federal government would have already looked into it and by the time they look into it, and if they were to approve a project, it’s already been vetted and they’ve already looked at not just the hydrogeology but things that EPD does not have to look at.”

A number of organizations are calling on the public to contact their legislators and to make the EPD aware of their objections to Twin Pines’ plans to mine titanium dioxide and zirconium along Trail Ridge, which separates the Okefenokee Refuge from the St. Mary’s River.

Twin Pines is pursuing permits from the state for a demonstration mine spanning 582 acres of a 773-acre tract located near the lip of the swamp. The company’s aim is to prove that mining can be done safely in a first stage before seeking other permits to expand the strip mine closer to swamp boundaries.

A company official says 100 to 200 jobs will be created by the project, and the mining methods it will use will restore the land to its original contours in a safe way that will not damage the habitat.

Twin Pines President Steven Ingle said the company will restore the sand and soil on land that had been commercially forested for more than a century. The company will also donate a significant portion of the property for conservation, he said.

“Of highest importance to us is protection of the Okefenokee and the surrounding environment,” Ingle said. “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.

The Okefenokee Swamp attracts more than 650,000 visitors each year. And it is home to an array of species including Virginia white-tailed deer, Florida black bears and other wildlife.

That is why environmentalists and Friends of the Okefenokee Wildlife refuge say it deserves to be protected. Not only is the Okefenokee Swamp a part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, but it is also designated as a National Natural Landmark.

However, the rich mineral content of the land makes it an attractive location for companies to extract raw materials such as titanium dioxide and zirconium. But plans for heavy mineral sand mining involve the digging of 50-foot-deep pits next to the swamp, disrupting the hydrology and geologic formation of an area that stretches south across the Florida border.

The Twin Pines push to mine along the edge of Okefenokee took center stage at the March 14 hearing before Smith’s House committee.

Supporters of the Trail Ridge mining project argued that the banning of future mining opportunities there would infringe on the company’s private property rights and thwart efforts to stimulate job growth in rural communities around the South Georgia wetland.

Taylor, the sponsor of the study committee resolution and the bill banning future mining along Trail Ridge, said that the study panel wouldn’t be a one-sided process. It would also look at ways to create job growth by increasing tourism to areas around Georgia’s lowland, especially in Charlton County where jobs that pay well are scarce.

In the March 14 committee meeting, Taylor stressed — as she has in the past — that she is not against mining; in fact companies mine in the district she represents. So she understands the importance of harvesting certain minerals and chemicals through extraction.

Mining is not the problem, but harming the Okefenokee is, Taylor said.

Georgia River’s Peck said that some of the people most vocally promoting Twin Pines mining plans have financial interests in the project.

“I think there are some people that don’t want the light shined on the risk of mining next to the swamp,” she said.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.