This article was updated Aug. 23, 2022.
The firm that wants to mine for heavy minerals near the Okefenokee Swamp scored a major victory Monday after a federal agency reversed its decision to take control of the review process away from Georgia’s environmental agency.
A couple of months after the Twin Pines Minerals’ permitting process was redirected to get more input about the potential harm to historic burial grounds of the Muscogee Creek Nation tribe, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division will resume its review of the Alabama-based company’s application to mine a large swath of land on the edge of the national wildlife refuge. Twin Pines announced Monday that it voluntarily dropped its lawsuit that accuses the federal agency of unfairly targeting its southeast Georgia mining plans when it forced the company to reapply for federal permits.
This development puts the project back on track to continue going through the state Environmental Protection Division’s final stages following an administrative setback applauded by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, the Muscogee Creek Nation and environmentalists for protecting the Okefenokee, its water table and its threatened wildlife.
“This is great news for Twin Pines, for our project, and for Charlton County,” Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said in a statement. “We appreciate the Corps’ willingness to reverse itself and make things right. We look forward to working with Georgia EPD to complete the permit process so we can bring hundreds of good-paying jobs, tax revenues, and economic development to the people of Charlton County.”
In September 2019, Twin Pines hosted public presentations to persuade locals it could harmlessly mine sand along Trail Ridge, which separates the St. Marys River and the Okefenokee Wildlife National Refuge. The company hoped to start mining as early as the summer of 2020 once it got approval from the Corps and the state.
Environmental groups are worried strip mining along Trail Ridge would harm the groundwater. Opponents claim the company’s plans for hundreds of acres of “demonstration” mining will result in future phases encroaching on a habitat that’s home to more than 600 plant species and rare animals like indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and wood storks.
Georgians have a responsibility to protect the national treasure in its own backyard, said Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network.
“It’s up to our state to protect the Okefenokee Wilderness and it always has been and always will be and we will protect our Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge by working together in private public partnership to not allow mining that would lower the water level of the already shallow swamp,” Peck said Monday evening as news spread of the latest twist in the long-running battle over the swamp’s boundary.
While bipartisan support to protect the swamp in the state Legislature gained traction this year, the attempt to block the state EPD from issuing or renewing surface mining permits on Trial Ridge failed.
The company claims its mining will not harm the ecosystem when it employs state-of-the-art technology and restores mining pits with sand and native plants.
Twin Pines plans to extract zirconium and titanium dioxide, minerals that are important to national security, according to a federal report. Only about 5% of titanium minerals are used for the production of titanium metal used in aircraft and medical devices. The remainder is used in consumer products including pigment in consumer paints.
Ingle has previously told The Current that it’s unclear where Twin Pines’ mining products would go. “We don’t dictate how our customers use the raw materials we provide them, and at this point, it’s too soon to know who will be purchasing our products,” Ingle wrote in a 2021 email.
Twin Pines also defends the project against accusations it could drain the swamp because mining would take place several miles from the swamp and at a higher elevation than water level.
Scientists not associated with the project, including University of Georgia John Porter Stevens Distinguished Professor of Water Resources C. Rhett Jackson, have lambasted Twin Pines’ assertion that mining won’t harm the swamp.
“It is certain by hydrogeologic theory that the mining operation will reduce water levels in the southeast corner of the swamp by some amount, and it is unlikely we can predict this amount accurately,” Jackson wrote in an open letter dated Dec. 21, 2021.
In its lawsuit, Twin Pines complained the Corps was using a Biden administration memo to make it more difficult for mining projects in Georgia and Arizona to obtain permits by asking for input from Native Americans with historic ties to the land. The shift, they argued, would cause Twin Pines to lose millions of dollars because Ossoff and like-minded influential federal officials are staunchly opposed to it.
The Muscogee Creek Nation had supported a change that could result in surveys and ground testing to determine whether mining at Twin Pines would disturb federally protected burial grounds.
The Okefenokee mine proposal has taken a few detours since the Alabama company proposed it more than three years ago. Twin Pines mining plans were moved along after Obama-era water protection rules were rolled back by the Trump administration. In June, a Biden administration memo commanded federal agencies to have “robust” consultation with Native American tribes while a new definition was in the works.
Kelly Moser, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Defense Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the organization is disappointed in the Corps’ decision on Monday to side with Twin Pines over the people who live near the hundreds of acres of threatened wetlands that are critical to the swampland region’s environmental health.
“Despite the Corps’ decision, the mining company must still comply with the Clean Water Act. Destroying the wetlands next to the Okefenokee without first obtaining a federal Clean Water Act permit is unlawful and, even if the Corps refuses to enforce the Act, Twin Pines will open itself up to citizen enforcement if it moves forward without a federal permit,” Moser said.
Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
The Current Reporter Mary Landers contributed to this article.