WAYCROSS — State Rep. John Corbett understands the desire by Charlton County officials who recently passed a resolution supporting a proposed mining project near the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The mining company Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, said it plans to employ 150 people, but Corbett acknowledged most of the employees will not come from Charlton County.
Corbett went on a two-hour flight Saturday to get an aerial perspective of the area where the proposed mining project will take place and also to look at a titanium dioxide mining project near Starke, Fla., to see the potential impacts if Twin Pines gets permission to start mining operations for at least the next eight years.
He was accompanied by Rena Peck Stricker, executive director of the Georgia River Network, and Ashley Beasley, a biological scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Stricker said she is not opposed to mining, but the risks are too great for the Twin Pines project.
“Titanium is a common mineral, but the Okefenokee is an uncommon swamp,” Stricker said. “It’s a national icon.”
Stricker said her concern is the impacts to hydrology in the swamp, as well as the impacts to wildlife from the constant noise, artificial lighting and vehicle traffic.
“How is the wilderness experience going to be with all the lights and noise?” she asked.
Another concern is mining could lower water levels in the swamp, drying out highly flammable peat that would increase the risk of damaging wildfires spreading to commercial timberland. An estimated 7,000 feet of creek will be removed as a result of the mining process, Stricker said.
“If it dries up and catches on fire, it will hurt the timber industry,” she said. “In addition to directly impacting more than 500 acres of wetlands, the mine threatens to permanently change the hydrology of the refuge and pollute key habitats for many species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on record stating that impacts from the mine may not be able to be reversed.”
Lower water levels could also impact the ability of paddlers to reach overnight camping platforms in the swamp.
Beasley said mining could impact a wildlife corridor established between the Okefenokee and Osceola National Forest in North Florida.
“The surrounding areas are also utilized by wildlife,” she said. “It’s part of the heartbeat of Florida.”
Unlike DuPont, the company that abandoned similar plans to mine titanium near the swamp two decades ago, Stricker questioned if the Twin Pines has the bonding and financial resources to pay for the costs of an environmental cleanup.
During the flight, passengers in the Piper Cherokee 6 flew over the titanium mines north of Starke, Fla., to view the impacts. The area showed mining in different stages as large pits are dug, the heavy minerals are extracted and the pits are backfilled.
Some opponents are calling for an environmental impact study to determine if the swamp’s hydrology could be affected by mining.
“I’m concerned natural drainage flows could be impacted,” she said. “We need a hydrological study.”
Any damage to the swamp could put 753 full and part-time jobs dependent on the swamp at risk, outweighing the 150 jobs Twin Pines said it will provide.
“Georgia River Network is not anti-mining, but it is against mines that threaten Georgia’s rivers and waters,” Stricker said. “This mine represents such a threat. Just like proposed mines in Alaska’s Bristol Bay or in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, some areas are too special to be put at risk by short-term profiteers. The Okefenokee is such a place.”
After the flight, Corbett said it was educational.
“It’s a different perspective seeing it from the air,” he said. “There are still a lot of questions.”