Moving the battle to protect the Okefenokee Swamp out of the regulatory and business realms, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Tuesday filed H.B. 1289 that would put a key protection into law.
The legislation would “prohibit the director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Natural Resources Department from issuing, modifying, or renewing any permit or accepting any bond to conduct surface mining operations on the geological feature known as Trail Ridge between the St. Marys and Satilla Rivers for future permit applications and amendments…”
Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor, from Thomasville, sponsored the bill. Coastal area Reps. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah); Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah); Don Hogan (R- St. Simons); Al Williams (D-Midway) and Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon) are co-sponsors as are nine other Republicans and three other Democrats from across the state.
Taylor said a constituent brought the mining issue to her attention. She then visited the site, toured the potential mine, and consulted with a geologist.
“I am not active in the ‘environmental arena,’ but like most people l do care about the Great Outdoors,” Taylor wrote in an email. “The Okefenokee is special, it is different. It needs to be valued and preserved.”
Trail Ridge is the bill’s focus because it’s vital to both mining and the swamp. It’s a mile-wide, 100-mile long ancient beach that runs inland from and parallel to the current shoreline in south Georgia and north Florida.
“It shapes the hydrology of the area and controls drainage of the Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean,” the bill reads. “Trail Ridge contains heavy mineral sands, resulting in two major surface mining proposals in the past 25 years.” The sands are rich in minerals such as titanium dioxide and zirconium.
Dupont was behind the first of those two proposals, which “the people of Georgia as well as state and national leaders overwhelmingly rejected,” as the bill states. That was in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2019, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals revived the idea with a proposal to mine on about 12,000 acres in Charlton County. Its plan is now scaled back to an almost 600-acre “demonstration project.” The legislation would not directly prevent that project, which has already applied for permits. But it could make it economically unfeasible if the rest of the original acreage could not eventually be mined.
Support for the swamp and opposition to mining appears to be growing. Last week, mining giant Chemours, a spin off of Dupont, pledged not to mine near the Okefenokee or to do business with Twin Pines for at least the next “five to 10 years.” The announcement was a win for Chemours shareholders like the Felician Sisters of North America, who had pressured the company to make the commitment.
“I think the people of Georgia recognize the uniqueness and importance of the Okefenokee and will want it preserved,” Taylor wrote in an email. “That give it a good chance of passage.”
Swamp gets its own day
On Tuesday Gov. Brian Kemp and legislators proclaimed the date as Okefenokee Swamp Day in Georgia. The proclamation recognizes the 428,000-acre swamp as the largest blackwater wetland in North America, a Wetland of International Importance and a potential candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
It further acknowledges the swamp’s impact on surrounding communities like Fargo, Folkston and Waycross which see an annual $64.7 million economic impact from swamp-based tourism along with the creation of some 750 swamp-related jobs. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge records more than 650,000 annual visitors from around the world.
“We applaud Georgia’s leaders for recognizing the significance of the Okefenokee Swamp to the communities surrounding it, our state, nation and world,” said Kim Bednarek, director of the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, in a prepared statement. “The swamp is the wild heart of Georgia and it’s right to celebrate this natural wonder.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated Feb. 10, 2022 to include comments from Rep. Darlene Taylor, the bill’s sponsor.