U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., says the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is an “absolutely sacred” place and must be protected from potentially harmful intrusions.
During a press conference Wednesday at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ossoff explained why he joined fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the state with the permitting process for Twin Pines Minerals, the Alabama-based company that wants to mine heavy minerals near the Okefenokee.
Ossoff said the Okefenokee is a “precious wildlife refuge that must be protected” and he wants to ensure the swamp will never be negatively impacted by a proposed commercial activity.
He said his team is frequently briefed about the issue.
The final decision was to be made by the Army Corps of Engineers until the Trump administration changed the Clean Water Act last year, removing the role of federal agencies in determining the environmental effects of the proposed mining project.
The company changed its application last summer to mine on a smaller footprint — 376 acres — from the original 1,200 acres proposed in an early application with the Corps of Engineers. The corps will have no say under the new regulations.
Opponents say the Georgia Environmental Protection Division lacks the expertise to determine if the proposed mining project is safe, or if it could have catastrophic environmental impacts that could potentially drain the 440,000-acre swamp, a claim the EPD says is false.
“Considering your agency’s long history of supporting Okefenokee Refuge, its scientific expertise in measuring ecological and hydrologic effects, and existing analyses about this mining proposal, we urge FWS to proactively support and engage with EPD in its review of this project and the cumulative impacts of long-term mining near the refuge,” the senators wrote in their request. “We ask FWS to specifically analyze whether the applicant is able to prove that operations will not harm the refuge.”
The lack of science showing the potential impacts of mining near the largest blackwater swamp in North America helped end a similar mining attempt by DuPont near the swamp in the late 1990s.
Twin Pines officials have expressed confidence they can safely mine near the swamp and restore the area with native vegetation and habitats. Opponents are concerned the project would attract other mining operations to the area if the scaled-down version is permitted.
Josh Marks, an Atlanta environmental lawyer, praised the senators for taking a position on the proposed mining project. Marks is a former Sierra Club campaign coordinator who helped defeat an effort by DuPont to mine next to the swamp.
“Sens. Ossoff and Warnock deserve a ton of credit for identifying this gap in EPD’s expertise and urging USFWS to fill it, especially given the fact that the USFWS hydrologist has said there is a risk the mining could literally drain the swamp,” he said. “EPD needs to accept this offer and fully incorporate that hydrologist and her work into the review of the permit applications.”
But Marks said Kemp “needs to intervene and make sure that “EPD does in fact full collaborate with FWS to investigate not only the hydrologic impacts but also impacts to wildlife, water quality, the tourism experience and the jobs that the swamp currently supports.”
“At the end of the day, we believe that EPD will conclude that the risks to the Okefenokee posed by the mine are simply too great and the permit applications should be denied,” he said.
Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the EPD, said the state agency is fully capable of handling the permit request.
“Georgia EPD has the experience and resources to evaluate proposed permits for numerous industrial activities to ensure they comply with applicable state and federal regulations,” Chambers said. “This includes proposed state permits for surface mining, which would be required regardless of the role of the federal government.”