Okefenokee swamp faces grave mining threat

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of Georgia’s largest national parks. Twin Pines’ newly approved mining initiatives now threaten the livelihood of the refuge’s unique ecosystems. // Photo courtesy of Stephen Morton AP Photo

Tucked in the southeast corner of Georgia, the Okefenokee Swamp spans more than 400,000 acres and is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals that live in the bog, including multiple endangered and threatened species. It is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, and it is one of the largest intact freshwater ecosystems in the world. 

The swamp has formed over the last 6,500 years, and the name “Okefenokee” originates from multiple Muskogean languages, roughly translating to “land of trembling earth.” 

After centuries of natural growth, the future of the swamp lies in the hands of money trails, petitions and climate change. 

Twin Pines Minerals of Birmingham, Ala., has been seeking a permit since 2019 to mine titanium dioxide less than three miles away from the southeastern border of the Okefenokee Swamp. Titanium dioxide is a white pigment frequently found in paper and paint. 

The mining would take place on Trail Ridge, a “saturated sandhill,” where mounds of sand serve as a barrier and dam for the swamp, holding in moisture. 

“What the company is proposing across hundreds of acres of land is to dig pits up to 50 feet deep. Extract the soil, separate out the heavy sands that they want to obtain. Twin Pines claims that they will rehabilitate the environment that they’ve just dug up,” said Ricky Leroux, the Senior Communications & Policy Coordinator for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “However, one of the big concerns is [that] Trail Ridge formed thousands and thousands of years ago. But it’s not something that can just be replicated by infilling extracted material.” 

The Sierra Club is a nationwide organization with more than one million members and chapters in each state, aiming to “educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.” 

On Feb. 9, 2024, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issued draft permits for the project, initially stating that there would be a 30-day public comment period before creating final versions of the permit for the company. On Feb. 12, the comment period was extended to a 60-day window for public comment. The initial EPD comment reiterated that the mining project will not “significantly harm” the Okefenokee. 

Notably, Twin Pines Minerals was fined $20,000 in late January after the EPD determined that the company had violated state laws while collecting oil samples for their permit. 

The EPD further claimed that there was not a professional geologist or engineer overseeing the collection which is a violation of state laws. Twin Pines agreed to pay the sum in order to “put this matter behind us and move our project forward.”

“We expect stringent government oversight of our mining-to-reclamation project, which will be fully protective of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge and the region’s environment,” said Steve Ingle, Twin Pines’ president.

However, many environmentalists across the state and the country disagree. The swamp is not only home to plenty of protected and endangered species, but also draws in over 600,000 visitors yearly, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“One of our main concerns with disrupting this ecosystem relates to climate change. The swamp is full of material known as peat, which is just dead plant material. Peat and the other plants in the Okefenokee store the equivalent of 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and it’s very important that these wetlands get protected,” Leroux said. 

Thursday, March 28, marked the end of the 2023 Georgia Legislative Session and despite efforts to come up with legislation to protect the Okefenokee, the session ended without any further action. House Bill (HB) 71, also known as the Okefenokee Protection Act, was a renewed version of the failed HB 1338 which proposed that “beginning on July 1, 2024, and continuing until June 30, 2027, the division shall accept no applications for new permits for surface mining utilizing dragline mining for heavy mineral sands in areas for which no prior surface mining permit has been obtained” died in committee. 

There are also several concerns of droughts and wildfires among experts due to the nature of the mining. 

“If the water levels in the swamp drop even just a few inches, and some of that peat becomes exposed and dried out, it becomes highly flammable. That’s going to cause more frequent and severe wildfires in the area and this area already has a history of wildfires. If those fires start to become more severe and more frequent, the amount of carbon dioxide that’s going to be released by burning all this plant material is going to severely harm our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and stave off the worst effects of climate change,” Leroux said.

First-year BMED Margaret Wade is from a town near the swamp and has been on  numerous family trips to the Okefenokee throughout her lifetime. 

“Mining near the swamp would not only be bad for the tourism and memories that people make there, but detrimental to the entire lowcountry ecosystem. The swamp plays a very important role in the environment that can not be replaced with anything else. Everyone in the lowcountry appreciates the wildlife and nature in the area, both around the swamp and throughout the intercoastal waterways in Georgia. Removing the swamp would be bad for this,” Wade said. 

“The Okefenokee is just one of the most unique and special places that we have here in Georgia, and it belongs to the people. There’s a national wildlife refuge that’s owned by the federal government, so it belongs to everyone in Georgia, and we should have a say in its future. To us, the Okefenokee is too important and critical to be put at risk for something like this mining proposal,” Leroux said. “I would encourage anyone who’s interested in this issue or passionate about it to make their voice here and let Georgia [or the] EPD know what they think about it and have your say in the future of this special place.”

The EPD will accept public comments until April 9. For more information, visit the EPD’s web page about Twin Pines at epd.georgia.gov/twin-pines. 

Public comments can be sent to the EPD office via email to [email protected] or physically to the office of the Land Protection Branch of the EPD at 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport Suite 104, Atlanta, GA 30354.