A company planning to mine for titanium near the Okefenokee Swamp has had a major hurdle removed: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says there are almost no wetlands or other waterways on the site that are protected by federal water law.
That makes the permitting process for the controversial project shorter, cheaper and easier. The decision is a reflection of a Trump administration rule change that narrows the purview of the Clean Water Act.
“We look forward to proceeding with our project to validate what science has already shown: that essential minerals can be recovered from Trail Ridge without affecting water levels in the Okefenokee Swamp and without harming the environment in any other way,” Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines Minerals LLC wrote in an emailed statement.
Earlier this year, Twin Pines Minerals pulled its initial permit application for the project, and then proposed a scaled-down demonstration version.
Opposition to the mine has come from all over the country.
“I can go through a whole litany of threats to the hydrology, to nature,” said Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network. She said she’s concerned about pollution in streams, lower water levels in the swamp and light pollution that would seep into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Critics of the project were pushing for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to require a full environmental impact statement, a study that would require a more detailed analysis of the effects on the environment, wildlife, water resources and recreation.
With the Corps’ finding that it largely doesn’t have jurisdiction over water on the site, that won’t happen, said Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Bill Sapp.
“Their project will not be subject to any other federal laws that protect the environment,” Sapp said.
The Corps’ decision flows from a Trump administration move to scale back an attempt by Obama to clarify which bodies of water are covered by the Clean Water Act.
Critics of the Obama rule said it expanded the reach of the federal government too far onto private property and included too much. States, including Georgia, sued to block it.
The Trump administration finalized its own interpretation of what water is protected earlier this year. That version, too, is being fought over in the courts, including one lawsuit brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center. But for now it’s in effect in all states except Colorado.
Sapp said his group is considering how to keep fighting the mining proposal. Under the previous rules around the Clean Water Act, he said, the wetlands on the site would have fallen under the Corps’ jurisdiction.
“They were all protected under the Clean Water Act until the rules were changed,” he said. “This situation is going to be occurring all across this country.”
The titanium mine does still need state-issued permits. Ingle said his company is working with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to move forward on those.
Last month, the Savannah Morning News revealed that Twin Pines Minerals had claimed in its applications to the state and the federal governments that it had permission to mine on property that it didn’t own, and that it did not, in fact, have permission to mine on. According to the Morning News, Ingle agreed to change the application, and the agencies aren’t levying any penalties.
There are still scientific concerns with the project, as well.
Ingle said the mine won’t affect local waterways, the Floridan Aquifer or the Okefenokee Swamp. And he said that the project will bring jobs to Charlton County — something local officials welcome.
“This project will produce substantial benefits to the nation—for the national economy as well as national security—and for Charlton County,” he said. “We are in complete agreement that the Okefenokee is a natural treasure, which we want to preserve as much as those who have opposed our proposal.”
But University of Georgia hydrologist Todd Rasmussen said he has questions about how the project would affect groundwater levels that in turn could affect the water level of the swamp; how the chemistry of the swamp might change; and if the mine on Trail Ridge, which serves as a dam for the swamp could affect how permeable that natural dam is.
And he said he’s worried that this project opens the door for others in the area.
“This proposed demonstration site is a postage stamp compared to the entire footprint of the proposed mining operation,” Rasmussen said. “To me it’s just one of many potential influences to the swamp. And what’s really needed is a regional water resources assessment, something that would focus on not just this but the cumulative effects of all types of different initiatives.”
DuPont also tried to mine in the area in the 1990s, but backed off after opposition from environmental groups and the government agencies.
“You had the Clinton administration with the Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, who was willing to go down there and fight for the swamp,” Sapp said. “And that just is not happening now.”