U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is urging Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to deny state permits for a proposed titanium dioxide mine near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“I strongly recommend that the State of Georgia not move ahead with approval for this proposed mine in order to ensure that the swamp and refuge are appropriately protected, consistent with all appropriate legal processes,” Haaland wrote in a Nov. 22 letter obtained by The Current.

Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals plans to mine in Charlton County for titanium dioxide and other minerals about 2.9 miles from the nearest boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the Eastern United States. Regulators at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division are evaluating applications for five permits required for the company to move forward.

Ahead of any formal public comment period, those regulators have received more than 26,000 public comments.

“The Department has a profound interest in protecting the health and integrity of the swamp ecosystem,” Haaland wrote. “Home to the refuge, it is a unique wetland ecosystem unlike any other found in North America and is one of the world’s most hydrologically intact freshwater ecosystems.

“The refuge is the 16th most visited in the Nation, welcoming more than 400,000 visitors
annually. The swamp has received numerous designations, including that of National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1974 and Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Wetlands Convention in 1986. Also, the refuge is under consideration for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its unique and intact hydrology and ecology.”

Okefenokee Water Trail Credit: Tom Wilson

Haaland visited the refuge in September. Okefenokee supporters hoped then for a repeat of the performance of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who in the late 1990s successfully headed off an mining effort by DuPont before it got to the permitting stage. Instead, Haaland toured the Okefenokee, met with locals and said very little publicly.

Environmental attorney Josh Marks, a leader in that fight against DuPont, welcomed Haaland’s letter.    

“This is now the second Interior Secretary I’ve met who has shown extraordinary leadership on the swamp’s behalf,” he texted.  “Twenty-five years ago, then Sec. Babbitt did the same thing in opposing DuPont’s risky mining scheme.   Hopefully, Governor Kemp will listen to her just as then-Governor Zell Miller listened to Sec. Babbitt, and will say no to TPM.”

The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But Twin Pines’ president Steve Ingle painted Haaland’s letter as “disturbing” and “emotional.”

The Okefenokee is the largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi. Credit: Photo courtesy office of Sen. Jon Ossoff

“The attempts to distort the truth and shut down this project get more desperate as we get closer to a permit,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “It is an extremely sad reflection on those in power. It is just one more, non-fact-based, disturbing appeal by the Secretary of the Interior and is consistent with the emotional decision they have made with respect to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the jurisdictional determination last year. That attempt was quickly pulled back because there was no legal basis for it.”

Scientific input

Ingle is referring to the project’s on again/off again need for permitting from the Corps of Engineers. When Twin Pines first proposed a mine project in 2019 it needed permitting from the Corps because of wetlands in the area. Before those permits were issued, the Trump administration narrowed the kinds of wetlands requiring federal regulation under the Clean Water Act, which meant the company needed only state permitting. In June the Army Corps backtracked on Twin Pines, saying a lack of consultation with the Muscogee Creek Nation meant the company would have to restart the process, with the Trump wetlands regulations by this time reversed. Twin Pines sued. An August settlement with the Corps of Engineers sent the permitting process back to the state. Conservation groups represented by The Southern Environmental Law Center have challenged that settlement in federal court.

As Haaland notes in her letter, scientists from her department and elsewhere have weighed in on the threat mining poses.

“(S)ome of the preeminent experts on this ecosystem and hydrology at the University of Georgia have also raised the alarm about the threat that this type of mining
activity in this area poses to the swamp,” she wrote.

Nearly 100 scientists have signed an open letter to Georgia describing their scientific concerns about how mining could threaten the swamp and criticizing Twin Pines’ analysis.

“Twin Pines has produced reports to analyze the impact of the proposed mine,” the letter states. “In our opinion, these studies are flawed in that: 1. The groundwater recharge rate used to model groundwater flow is too low and improper; 2. The connectivity of the underlying aquifers is not clearly established; 3. These studies do not align with established research, and they have not been peer-reviewed.

In a separate comment letter, UGA hydrology expert C. Rhett Jackson also cites the potential for the mine’s wastewater treatment process to generate enormous “saline clouds” that could drop over 1 ton per day of salt on the swamp, which could devastate vegetation and the fragile freshwater balance that supports the hundreds of species that call the swamp home.

Still, Ingle accuses the Department of the Interior and Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, of being emotional, not scientific.

“We have an egregious situation in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored the science from the beginning, created hysteria and is now a full-blown partisan, weaponizing the regulatory process to achieve its objective,” he wrote. “That is not supposed to be the American way. We have followed the regulatory process in good faith from the beginning with an abundance of science demonstrating provable methodologies and will continue to do so.”

But Twin Pines is currently facing questions from the EPD about exactly how closely it’s followed the regulatory process. EPD can find no records proving the drilling of Twin Pines’ 385 data-collection boreholes was supervised by a Georgia-licensed professional engineer or professional geologist as required. EPD first brought up the issue on Oct. 21. Twin Pines’ spokesman Chip Stewart said Thursday that the company’s response was due soon and would be posted online by EPD. He declined to share evidence that the boreholes were drilled properly.

If Twin Pines didn’t abide by the regulatory requirements, EPD and the public have reason to doubt the data, said Jim Reichard, a geology professor at Georgia Southern University and a signer of the open letter opposed to mining.

“The data still might be good, but it calls into question the quality of their data,” he said. “You can’t be assured that it was done properly.”

The Association of Environmental Engineering & Geologists notes on its website that “Work done, and recommendations made by, underqualified and inexperienced geoscientists can lead to cost overruns and public safety hazards.” Among the possible safety hazards is contamination of drinking water aquifers.

DNR Board discusses letter

The Georgia DNR Board briefly discussed Haaland’s letter at its meeting on Wednesday. EPD Director Rick Dunn said his division welcomed the technical expertise from the Fish & Wildlife Service as well as from members of the public. He hinted at the complexity of its review.

“(T)hose scientific technical questions with some of the issues we’re struggling with, or dealing with, are very, very important,” Dunn said.

Board Chair Bill Jones has previously stated that he will poll the board over the issue of a board resolution on the Twin Pines proposal once the 60-day public comment period on the permit begins. He cautioned, though, that Georgia law gives the EPD Director sole authority to approve or deny the permits.

In his statement, Ingle downplayed the mining as temporary and far from the swamp.

“At the end of the day, everyone needs to remember, our so-called ‘mining’ is nothing more than temporarily extracting sands and soils to levels comparable to the height of a typical home roofline and replacing it with a covering of natural, native plant species,” he wrote. “This will all take place almost three miles distant from the nearest boundary of the refuge and even further from the swamp itself. We would appreciate a logical, respectful, science-based and mature process that acknowledges these facts.”

Advocates like Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, say that science-based process is on their side.

“Secretary Haaland has embraced the best available science and acknowledged the extensive research and tireless advocacy of dozens of scientists, elected officials, and agency leaders who are unequivocal about the significant threat facing the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “Digging near the Okefenokee, or any wetland, is reckless and wrong-headed, period. Allowing any mining in the vicinity of Okefenokee could lead to a catastrophic draining of the swamp which would irreparably transform it from the vibrant and biodiverse wilderness we know today.”

Mary Landers is a reporter for The Current in Coastal Georgia with more than two decades of experience focusing on the environment. Contact her at mary.landers@thecurrentga.org She covered climate and...