A decision last year to change Clean Water Act guidelines removed most federal oversight from a proposed mining project near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The changes remove the decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and give the primary responsibility for permits to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division — at least for the time being.

The Biden administration is conducting an administrative review that could reverse some of the weakening of federal regulations protecting waterways. Environmentalists are hoping it will cast new attention on the Okefenokee Swamp.

Opponents of the rule changes under the Trump administration say the plans by Twin Pines Minerals for a 740-acre tract near the swamp create too many unknowns about potential impacts to the environmentally sensitive area.

A similar attempt to mine heavy minerals near the swamp by DuPont was defeated in the late 1990s after widespread opposition forced the chemical giant to abandon its plans.

Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys EarthKeepers, said research has never been conducted to prove mining near the Okefenokee won’t cause irreversible damage to the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River. It’s the same argument used against DuPont’s plans to mine near the swamp more than two decades ago.

“I believe that the total lack of studies showing that there will be no harm to the swamp will cause the EPD to deny the permits,” Kearns said. “The only studies Twin Pines have offered have been done by Twin Pines themselves, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as multiple independent experts, have warned that operations could compromise the entire 438,000-acre swamp.”

Twin Pines hired consultants to study the issue and they concluded mining will not harm the swamp. Those studies did not convince opponents, who said mining near the swamp could jeopardize the tourism industry. An estimated 600,000 people a year visit the swamp.

Kearns said public comments do make a difference. Comments are being accepted by state EPD officials at TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov.

“The response to this issue has been astounding, with more than 60,000 comments thus far,” Kearns said. “The Okefenokee truly matters to people locally, nationally and internationally.”

Kearns has faith state lawmakers and EPD officials “will ensure this misguided project never comes to fruition.”

“The Okefenokee is a designated Wetland of International Importance and a prospective UNESCO World Heritage Site,” she said. “More than 600,000 visitors from as many as 46 countries travel to the Okefenokee refuge each year to enjoy its peerless wilderness, and this tourism supports over 750 local jobs and contributes over $64 million to local economies. It is my opinion that environmentally, culturally and economically, Twin Pines project is deeply flawed and dangerous.”

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