Georgia regulators are pushing forward publicly on a controversial proposal to strip mine near the Okefenokee. But behind the scenes, documents obtained by The Current reveal those same regulators are making plans to fine the company for failing to follow regulations as it collected its data for the mine.

On Thursday the Georgia Environmental Protection Division issued a blueprint for how the Twin Pines Minerals’ titanium dioxide mine will operate. The public has 60 days to read and comment on the Draft Mining Land Use Plan.

The Alabama-based company plans to recover titanium dioxide and zircon from a 582-acre demonstration mine in Charlton County. At its closest point the mine will be less than three miles from the boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

That’s too close for many scientists and conservationists who argue the mining can’t be done without disrupting the flow of water in the beloved blackwater swamp, one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems.

More than 20 years ago Georgia rejected a proposal by mining giant DuPont to extract titanium dioxide from the same area. Twin Pines restarted the debate in July 2019, first seeking a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for mining heavy minerals on 12,000 acres of Trail Ridge, an ancient barrier island that forms an earthen dam east of the refuge. Public outcry against the plan ensued, though Charlton County officials supported it.

Twin Pines withdrew its initial application in March 2020 but replaced it with a “demonstration project” still on Trail Ridge. This smaller project is meant to show that mining can be done without harming the refuge. Changing federal jurisdiction over wetlands removed the requirement to get a permit from the Corps. Last summer it looked like the project would be batted back to the Corps because of a failure to consult with the Muscogee Creek Nation. Then Twin Pines sued and the Corps settled, sending Twin Pines back to Georgia regulators for the five state permits needed for the mine to get up and running.

Fines considered

The state permitting process seemed to stall in the fall. Regulators met with Twin Pines in late October. Two weeks later, EPD posted online a series of questions arising from the meeting and then posted responses from Twin Pines.

HOW TO COMMENT

Georgia Environmental Protection Division will hold public virtual hearings on February 21 and 23, both at 6 p.m. The Division will make recordings of the meetings available on its website at https://epd.georgia.gov/twin-pines.
Zoom Meeting Registration February 21 or 23

Comments should also be submitted via email to twinpines.comment@dnr.ga.gov or in writing to Land Protection Branch, 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport, Suite 104, Atlanta, Georgia 30354 by March 20, 2023. Copies of the draft plan are available on the EPD’s Twin Pines information site.

Conspicuously absent was the answer to a question about boreholes, narrow diameter holes drilled to investigate what’s underground. In this case the boreholes provided geologic samples to predict how the strip mine would affect natural processes like the flow of water. The company drilled 385 boreholes, but hadn’t provided information about who conducted that drilling or whether it was supervised by a Georgia-licensed Professional Engineer or Professional Geologist as required. EPD requested evidence of compliance.

On Nov. 10 the company responded, “We are in the process of gathering the requested information and will provide it to the Agency.”

The response came six weeks later from TTL, Inc., a Twin Pines’ consultant. J. Mark Tanner of TTL explained that the work was performed under the supervision of a Twin Pines employee who hadn’t yet received his license as a professional geologist in Georgia when he oversaw some of the drilling. The supervisor in question, James H. Powell, Jr., was registered as a professional geologist in Alabama.

Tanner, also a geologist, explained his understanding of Georgia law in that Dec. 23 email: “Georgia’s licensing statute provides that persons licensed to practice geology in other States, and who otherwise meet Georgia’s requirements, ‘may be registered, upon application, without further examination.’ O.C.G.A. § 43-19-14 (emphasis added). Based on this, it is our understanding that this statute as allowing out-of-state geologists to practice in Georgia so long as an application to the Professional License Board is pending – a reasonable interpretation, especially given the extreme backlog at the Professional Licensing Division.”

Tanner left out an important part of the statute. In full it reads “A person holding a certificate of registration to engage in the practice of geology, on the basis of comparable licensing requirements issued to him by a proper authority of a state, territory or possession of the United States, or the District of Columbia, and who, in the opinion of the board, otherwise meets the requirements of this chapter based on verified evidence may be registered, upon application, without further examination.”

In other words, the licensing isn’t automatic upon application. Nor does the law provide for any exceptions when the licensing board has a backlog.

EPD began discussing penalties before Twin Pines sent its written response. Wei Zeng, manager of EPD’s water supply program, wrote an internal email suggesting that after Twin Pines explained itself EPD would be able to assess if there were violations, which would be used to assess a financial penalty.

“(T)he penalty will be included in a Consent Order with a (notice of violation) as the cover letter,” Zeng wrote. “This will be issued to TP as a starting point of a negotiation process.  Hopefully we can resolve the issue without major obstacles.”

That penalty appears to be in the works. In response to an open records request for correspondence related to the borehole issue, EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips cited Georgia law that exempts pending investigation of criminal or unlawful activity and wrote that “certain information is exempt from disclosure at this time as part of that pending investigation.”

EPD also required Twin Pines to post a bond, which the company did not do before drilling. TTL’s Tanner provided another interpretation of Georgia law that would exempt the company. He agreed, however, to post a bond “to put the matter to rest.”

Twin Pines was bonded on Dec. 21, 2022.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle declined to comment directly on the borehole issue, instead releasing a prepared statement.

“As we have said from the beginning, we are not risktakers and will not embark on a journey that could cause environmental harm and financial penalties,” he said in part.

Previous regulatory missteps

The boreholes and bonding are not the first instances of Twin Pines not hewing to regulatory guidelines. In early 2020 Twin Pines requested permits from the Corps and from EPD for land it didn’t own or control. TIAA Timberlands was the owner of about 25% of the land listed in the permit application and that company had not negotiated with Twin Pines over leasing or selling it, the Savannah Morning News reported in 2020.

Ingle told The Current in November that the whole thing was a “misunderstanding. Twin Pines believed it “had access and permission to mine on one tract of land owned by TIAA when we did not,” Ingle wrote. “It was our mistake and we corrected it by removing that parcel from our permit application.”

Twin Pines removed the parcel from the permit application months after TIAA made repeated written requests to the company and finally to the Corps of Engineers directly. Both the Corps and the Georgia EPD allowed Twin Pines to amend its application without penalty. The penalty for errors on the federal application includes up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“We have been operating in good faith from the beginning and will continue to do so by adhering to all laws and environmental regulations and following Georgia EPD’s direction,” Ingle wrote in November.

Twin Pines has not previously mined in Georgia. When the company worked on recovering heavy minerals from previously mined tailings owned by the Chemours Company near Starke, Fla., state regulators there called out Twin Pines’ mistakes in a 2019 consent order that outlined the loss of wetlands in the area, among other missteps.

“Twin Pines’ silt fence was overwhelmed with sand; process water and
tailings fill deposited in a wetland without permit authorization,” Florida regulators wrote.

Chemours was fined $9,500.

Florida regulators also cited Twin Pines in April 2019 and April 2020 for air permit violations.

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney and leader of the fight against DuPont’s titanium mining project in the 1990s, says he doesn’t trust Twin Pines.

Kayakers paddle the Okefenokee. Credit: Stephen C. Foster State Park

“Twin Pines Minerals’ dangerous proposal to strip mine along the hydrologic boundary of the Okefenokee would be a massive threat to the swamp’s integrity even if TPM was a flawless, experienced operator,” he wrote in an email. “But TPM has zero experience developing titanium mines, and has a laundry list of violations and misrepresentations, the most recent of which being its apparent violation of state law governing its exploratory drilling and data collection when it was developing the project.  Simply put, TPM can’t be trusted to operate in the middle of a desert much less next to Georgia’s greatest natural treasure.”      

Business connections

Several of Twin Pines’ key executives have ties to an otherwise unrelated company that’s been in regulatory hot water. That company is Georgia Renewable Power, which owns two biomass power plants in Franklin and Madison Counties near Athens. They burn wood, mainly from construction and demolition debris, to produce electricity for Georgia Power.

Alabama resident Raymon Bean founded both GRP and Twin Pines, according to filings with the Georgia Secretary of State. Ingle used to be the vice president of GRP. The two companies also share an environmental manager in Mark Fowler, according to Fowler’s LinkedIn page. Both companies are headquartered on the 5th floor of 2100 Southbridge Parkway in Birmingham, AL.  They are both financed by GreenFuels Energy, LLC, which Bean manages. (Ingle used a Greenfuels email in 2018 when applying for a wetlands permit from the Corps.)

Ingle maintains that GreenFuels’ financing is all the companies have in common. “Twin Pines Minerals and Georgia Renewable Power are managed by separate and distinct management teams, share no employees or resources and are solely responsible for their own operations,” he wrote in an email to The Current in November. “We have not worked jointly on any projects with GRP and the industries in which the two companies operate are totally independent of one another.”

There’s good reason for Ingle to seek distance from GRP. Georgia regulators cited the two GRP power plants repeatedly in 2020 for air and water pollution issues, including polluted runoff that was linked to a fish kill. EPD forced the company to pay fine totaling $78,000. While initially permitted to burn only “clean” wood, the company amended its permit to burn creosote-coated railroad ties. The surrounding community was so distraught by the resulting pollution that its state legislator Alan Powell in 2020 passed a bill to ban the burning of railroad ties to generate power.

At a press conference held in September outside a DNR Board meeting at Stephen C. Foster State Park at the entrance to the Okefenokee, Madison County residents Ruth Ann and Drago Tesanovich, who helped found the Madison County Clean Power Coalition to fight GRP, shared their experience of the company, insisting it was relevant to Twin Pines Minerals.

Ruth Ann and Drago Tesanovich

“They promised to be good neighbors, to only burn clean untreated wood and bring us jobs and pay taxes. We believed them,” Drago Tesanovich said. “But after GRP received their permits and built the plants instead of burning clean wood chips, as they promised, they hauled in tons of railroad ties coated with creosote, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer. Poisonous dust and debris from the chipping of the ties filled our lungs, washed into our waterways and black smoke belched out of their stacks. They lied to us. GRP promises power. They provided only a handful of local jobs, poisoned us along with our air, land, water and wrecked the quality of our lives.”

Twin Pines’ management includes individuals who worked for the Alabama coal company, Drummond, which has a troubled history. In 2018 a vice president at Drummond and a lawyer for the company were convicted of bribing an Alabama legislator to oppose federal efforts to prioritize the cleanup of a Drummond site in Birmingham to save the company the cleanup costs, The New York Times reported.

“The President and Vice President of Twin Pines used to work for Drummond Coal Mine, one of the most polluting and corrupt companies in the southeast,” Ruth Ann Tesanovich said outside the DNR meeting in September. Twin Pines Minerals Vice President Jimmy Powell lists Drummond Coal as a former employer on his LinkedIn profile. Steve Ingle’s profile lists his position as Director Surface Engineering and Permitting at Drummond Company.

Ingle denies a connection between the companies. “However, there has been some confusion because Drummond has a company named Twin Pines, LLC, which is in no way related, directly or indirectly, to Twin Pines Minerals, LLC,” he wrote in November.

Scientific disputes

Twin Pines’ prior regulatory missteps are far from the only issues surrounding the mining proposal. The EPD logged more than 26,000 comments on Twin Pines’ proposal before the official comment period opened Thursday.

State and federal officials from around the country are among those opposed to the mine. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has written to Gov. Brian Kemp urging Georgia to reject the mine. Georgia legislators proposed anti-mining legislation last year, but the bill stalled in committee. An effort has already begun to revive it this year.

Twin Pines insists “mining activities will have no significant impact on water levels in and near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.”

“To have arrived at this point is a validation of the science and it’s time for those that are concerned to be openminded and recognize they may not have been getting the truth from opposition groups,” Ingle wrote in a prepared statement. “EPD’s process has been thorough and rigorous, and our responses to their questions have been based on sound science and engineering. We will be transparent in our operations and adhere to the direction of EPD which will closely monitor our activities.”

While environmental groups like the 40 organizations united in the Okefenokee Protection Alliance have been loudly opposed to the mining, they have done so with backing from independent scientists.

In September a group of nearly 100 scientists wrote an open letter outlining their concerns. Leading those scientific voices is C. Rhett Jackson, a top hydrologist at the University of Georgia, who has repeatedly challenged Twin Pines’ analyses and modeling with his own, most recently emphasizing that the company based its analyses on data from the wrong river gauge.

Rhett Jackson outside the Suwanee River Eco-Lodge. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

“The draft Mining Land Use Plan released today by EPD is deeply flawed,” Jackson wrote in an email. “EPD has skewed its analysis of the effects of the mine’s water withdrawals by analyzing their effects on flows far downstream on the St Marys, where the watershed and average discharge are over four times larger than where the river exits the swamp. In contrast, data from the correct river gauge just south of the swamp shows that groundwater withdrawals from the mining pit will triple the frequency of severe drought in the swamp’s southeast portion and the Upper St Marys River. Such an increase in drought frequency will have substantial effects on swamp ecology, wildfire frequency, and boating access for tourism, management, and scientific purposes.   

He also points to a salt pollution issue.

“In addition, the Mining Land Use Plan completely fails to address the issue of massive salt deposition downwind of the wastewater evaporation system, which could have devastating impacts to the swamp’s freshwater ecosystem and the surrounding forests,” Jackson wrote.

And what happens if the evaporation plan doesn’t work, he asks.

“(T)here is no plan for monitoring or addressing discharges of process water to the tributaries of the St Marys River. The EPA already lists the St Marys River as impaired for sediments, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen, all issues that would be exacerbated by discharges from the mine.” 

​State Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville), chairman of the governmental affairs committee, wrote to EPD Director Rick Dunn earlier this week urging him to heed Jackson’s warnings.

“I find Dr. Jackson’s latest memo to be well reasoned, and would appreciate an opportunity to meet and discuss with EPD staff his contention that EPD’s reliance on the downstream gauge is misplaced, as well as EPD’s opinion on the salt deposition issue,” she wrote.

She also requested that “no decisions be made or documents released until the legislature has a better understanding of EPD’s reasoning.”

EPD released the draft land use plan two days later.

Options for submitting public comment on the Twin Pines plan follow. The deadline is March 20, 2023: