The US Army Corps of Engineers on Friday reversed its approval of a mining project threatening the Okefenokee Swamp.

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael L. Connor revoked the approval because the agency had not consulted with the Muscogee Creek Nation as required. Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, however, can restart the permitting process, and the company has indicated it intends to do so.

“We have said from the day we announced our plans that we would follow the regulations before us at any given time,” said Twin Pines Minerals President Steve Ingle in an email. “The fact that there appears to have been a change doesn’t come as a surprise, it isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. We have no say in what the regulatory agencies are charged with doing.”

Twin Pines has proposed mining for titanium dioxide and other heavy minerals about three miles from the edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge along a line of ancient sand dunes called Trail Ridge. Conservation groups have protested the project since it was first proposed in 2019, saying it threatens to disrupt the flow of water into and out of the swamp.

The Okefenokee Swamp is one of the world’s largest intact freshwater wetlands and is renowned for its black water, star-studded nighttime skies and breathtaking vistas. More than 402,000 acres are protected in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the eastern United States and home to hundreds of plant and animal species. The Okefenokee has been nominated as a World Heritage Site.

The Corps’ decision hinges on its shifting authority to regulate the use of wetlands. The Trump Administration narrowed the definition of “jurisdictional wetlands,” removing the need for federal permitting from 556 acres of wetlands owned by Twin Pines. The Biden administration reversed the Trump-era decision.

Over the last several years, the Savannah District of the Corps made two determinations about these wetlands targeted by the Twin Pines mine, excluding them from their jurisdiction in October 2020 and March 2021. In both cases the Muscogee (Creek )Nation requested consultations.

“(I)t is my policy decision that the Corps should have honored these government-to-government consultation requests,” Connor wrote.

Ancient ties, recent proposals

The name “Okefenokee” hearkens back to the swamp’s connections to indigenous people. It means the “Land of the Trembling Earth” in the language of the Creek, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. And Trail Ridge, which forms a natural dam for the Okefenokee, received its name because it served as a walking route for native people.

The Muscogee Nation is now a self-governed Native American tribe based in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. It’s the fourth largest tribe in the U.S. with 86,100 citizens. Muscogee Nation representatives in Oklahoma did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did Marian (Vonnie) McCormick, principal chief of the Lower Muskogee Tribe in Georgia.

Rena Peck of the Georgia River Network paddles a canoe in the Okefenokee Swamp, which she fears would be harmed by a proposed mine nearby.

Twin Pines’ mining project appeared about two decades after the Dupont Corp. proposed mining in the same area. “The people of Georgia as well as state and national leaders overwhelmingly rejected” that proposal, as a bill in the state legislature stated earlier this year. The bipartisan bill aimed at shutting down mining on Trail Ridge died in committee, despite widespread support. Dupont’s successor, Chemours, agreed earlier this year to avoid mining near the Okefenokee after being pressured by activist Catholic sisters who hold shares in the company.

Mining opponents, including Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga), continued to push for a shutdown. Ossoff visited the Okefenokee last year and pressured the U.S. EPA and US Army Corps to reexamine the proposal.

“Hydrological and biological analysis of the impact of this mine suggests that it may do severe and irreversible damage to the swamp, ruining the swamp, as not just a place where people can go and enjoy themselves and participate in nature, but also as a vital natural resource, a wetland ecosystem, a bio diverse habitat for precious wildlife,” Ossoff said in a press conference late last month.

Conservationists cheer decision

Conservation groups were elated at the Corps’ decision.

“Twin Pines has long evaded federal oversight and review,” said Christian Hunt, Southeast representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “With the public process restored, Twin Pines should spare the Okefenokee and abandon this project once and for all.”

“Mining on the doorstep of a rare ecological treasure like Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp defies common sense, and we are thrilled that this announcement removes the threat to hundreds of acres of critically important wetlands,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Defense Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Formally rescinding the unlawful decisions made by the prior administration restores protections for wetlands that are vital to the swamp’s unique ecosystems and makes it possible for the many Georgians, visitors from across the country, and people worldwide who love to visit, paddle, and explore this iconic place to continue to do so.”  

Twin Pines sounded undaunted, however, saying it can mine without harming the Okefenokee.

Twin Pines mine site
Land in southeast Georgia that Twin Pines Minerals wants to mine for zinc and other heavy minerals is near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: File/GPB News

“It is worth noting that for the most part, the regulations, if enacted, will only restore permitting requirements we were already addressing in federal applications before the Trump ruling was issued,” Ingles wrote. “We intend to move forward with our application and fulfill all requirements.

“… All dragline mining will occur at elevations above the highest water level of the swamp and approximately three miles from the nearest boundary of the refuge. More than just an altruistic desire to assure the swamp and cultural resources are safeguarded, it is just good business, and we wouldn’t be investing millions of dollars in the permitting process if we weren’t certain of our abilities to achieve those objectives.”

Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, challenged Twin Pines’ assertions.

“Twin Pines is not telling the truth about mining depth going below swamp water level which is only 1-3 feet,” she wrote in an email. The swamp’s elevation is about 120 feet above sea level Trail Ridge is a higher elevation, about 158-168 feet above sea level where the mining would begin. But Twin Pines plans to dig pits up to 50 feet deep, which would put them 2-12 feet lower than the water level of the swamp.

“Just a half foot loss (of water depth) can close the Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trails, some of which were old Indian trails,” she wrote.

Peck also predicted that with the Corps re-engaged it’s doubtful mining would pass the required environmental impact level study.

“It’s like we’re back at square one and that’s a great place to start!” she texted. “And now we have more information from independent scientists that mining would harm the swamp, the St. Marys River and the outdoor recreation industry that depends upon them.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated June 6, 2022 to include additional comments from Rena Pack of the Georgia River Network.

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...