HAHIRA — The Okefenokee Swamp is again one of the Georgia Water Coalition’s “Dirty Dozen,” recognized as the worst offenses to Georgia’s water. The swamp, the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers and the Floridan Aquifer are still threatened by a strip mine, but this time only Georgia can stop it.
This year’s Dirty Dozen report includes the following:
♦ Altamaha River: Will state permit finally fix pollution from Rayonier pulp mill in Jesup?
♦ Chattahoochee River: Combined sewer overflows foul Columbus’s whitewater tourist destination.
♦ Cumberland Island: Spaceport boondoggle gets worse with age, risks homes and barrier islands in Camden County.
♦ Etowah River: Liquid waste causes landfills to collapse, pollute local streams and river in Forsyth and Cherokee counties.
♦ Georgia’s Groundwater: Coal ash pollutes well water in Juliette.
♦ Georgia’s Rivers and Streams: Landfill leachate poses risks.
♦ Georgia’s Rural Communities: Push to open Georgia to factory animal farm operations continues.
♦ Little Lotts Creek: Taxpayer funded stormwater project in Statesboro to support commercial development within floodplain compromises health of creek.
♦ Ogeechee River: Pollution limits weakened at industry responsible for massive 2011 fish kill in Screven County.
♦ Okefenokee Swamp: Federal rule change opens door to mine threatening one of Georgia’s natural wonders in Charlton County.
♦ Satilla River: Proposed landfill risks contamination of well water, wetlands and river in Brantley County.
♦ St. Simons Sound: Golden Ray salvage plan could further foul coastal Georgia; damage assessment needed.
For nearly two years Twin Pines Minerals LLC, an Alabama-based mining company, has petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to secure federal permits allowing the company to destroy extensive wetlands and streams on a 12,000-acre site near the Okefenokee Swamp. The Clean Water Act required such action. During this process, Twin Pines, federal and state agencies, citizens and other stakeholders had the opportunity to submit information and opinions to the Corps in support of or in opposition to the proposed mining operation.
Tens of thousands of citizens did so, voicing legitimate concerns about the titanium mine’s potential impacts on the Okefenokee. But earlier this year when changes to the Clean Water Act went into effect, those voices were effectively muted. The rule changes removed from federal protection 376 acres of wetlands on the proposed mining site and eliminated the need for Twin Pines to secure federal permits. Now, only Georgia leaders have the ability to stop this dangerous proposal or ensure that if mining takes place, it will be done without harming one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders.
The Okefenokee Swamp is a signature landscape of Georgia. Covering 438,000 acres, it is considered the largest blackwater wetland in North America and virtually all of it — some 630 square miles in Charlton, Ware, and Clinch counties as well as Baker County in Florida — is protected as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to a dizzying array of flora and fauna, with more than 600 species of plants and more than 400 species of vertebrates, including 200 varieties of birds and 60 kinds of reptiles.
From the swamp flow the St. Marys River to the east, and the fabled Suwannee River to the southwest. These rivers and the swamp are popular tourist and recreation destinations. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report estimated that the National Wildlife Refuge hosts some 650,000 visits annually and generates some $60 million in revenue annually while creating 750 jobs in Georgia and Florida. In addition to supporting local economies, each year the swamp also provides ecological services like storm protection, water quality, commercial and recreational fishing habitat and carbon storage that are worth as much as $125 million.
When the Trump Administration announced it would repeal and replace a 2015 federal rule defining what streams, rivers, lakes, marshes, wetlands and other water bodies were protected under the Clean Water Act, Georgia Water Coalition members warned of the dangers of weakening those definitions. Now, the new Trump Administration rules, which were supported by Georgia’s top legal officials, have come home to roost.
With the rule changes adopted earlier this year, 376 acres of land on the proposed footprint of the Twin Pines mining site that were previously considered “jurisdictional wetlands” are no longer afforded protection under the Clean Water Act.
The federal hurdle removed, if Twin Pines can now secure necessary state permits, mining operations can commence. That could spell tragedy for the Okefenokee Swamp. The mine is sited along Trail Ridge, a rise of land along the swamp’s eastern border that serves as a geological dam, regulating water levels in the swamp. The company plans to dig 5,000-square-foot ditches into the ridge at an average depth of 50 feet in pursuit of titanium and other minerals and is expected to pump water from the Floridan aquifer — groundwater that likewise helps sustain swamp water levels.
During the now defunct permitting process, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the Corps, “There is potential for this project as proposed to cause adverse effects to water quality and … wildlife dependent on aquatic systems.”
Likewise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, has argued that even slightly lowered water levels in the swamp could have irreversible effects and told the Corps that Twin Pines’ studies asserting that no harm would befall the Okefenokee were flawed.
Yet like the 60,000 comment letters that the Corps received from citizens opposed to the mine, these voices have been muted by the rule change.
With federal oversight removed, it is now up to the state to protect the Okefenokee from this dangerous mining proposal. As Gov. Zell Miller did in the 1990s when DuPont proposed a similar mine near the Okefenokee, Gov. Brian Kemp must take a stand against the mine. At a minimum, before issuing any state permits to Twin Pines, the state should study the potential cumulative impacts of mining on Trail Ridge to ensure that the Okefenokee is not harmed.
The Georgia Water Coalition has provided a convenient action portal for writing to the Georgia governor. You don’t even have to live in the state to use it. https://www.protectgeorgia.org/#/244. You can write to your Georgia state representative or senator or governor or lieutenant governor and ask them to refuse any such instrument.
These are the Georgia state Senators with districts most involved with the Okefenokee Swamp:
♦ District 007 — Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla) (Tift, Berrien, Irwin, Ben Hill, Coffee, Bacon, Atkinson, Ware, and Charlton Counties), (404) 463-5263, firstname.lastname@example.org. His district includes the Okefenokee Swamp, and he is the chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
♦ District 008 — Sen. Ellis Black (R-Valdosta) (Lowndes, Lanier, Echols, Clinch, Cook, Brooks, and Thomas Counties), (404) 463-6597, (229) 559-7546, email@example.com. Black is retiring. Russ Goodman won the election for this seat: (912) 218-0447, firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ District 003 — Sen. William T. Ligon Jr. (R-Brunswick) (Brantley County), (404) 463-1383, (912) 261-2263, email@example.com.
These are the Georgia state Representatives with districts most involved:
♦ 174 — John Corbett, R, Lake Park, (404) 656-0213, firstname.lastname@example.org. His district includes the mine site.
♦ 180 — Steven Sainz, R, Woodbine, (404) 656-0177, email@example.com, Charlton and Ware Counties.
♦ 176 — James Burchett, R, Waycross, (404) 656-0188, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lowndes, Lanier, Atkinson, and Ware Counties.
♦ 177 — Dexter Sharper, D, Valdosta, (404) 656-0126, email@example.com, Lowndes County.
You can also write to your U.S. Representative or Senator and ask them to urge the Corps to reject this mine or at least require an EIS, like Rep. Al Lawson (FL-05) already did.
The Army Corps public announcement of the miners’ re-application last spring says: “The applicant may also require assent from the state of Georgia, which may be in the form of a license, easement, lease, permit or other appropriate instrument.”
You can also write to the Georgia DNR board, asking them to refuse any such instrument.