The state is fully capable of determining any impact commercial mining might have on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, refuted a claim by an environmental lawyer that EPD lacks the expertise to determine whether a mining permit sought by an Alabama-based company would be detrimental to the swamp.

Twin Pines Minerals is applying for a permit to mine heavy mineral sands on a 376-acre section of the nearly 354,000-acre wildlife refuge.

The proposal is staunchly opposed by environmentalists who argue against allowing the company to withdraw groundwater. They say it will have a negative impact on the refuge.

In an article published in The News April 27, Atlanta lawyer and former Sierra Club campaign coordinator Josh Marks said he was concerned because of EPD’s lack of expertise on hydrology. He said a report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service now in the hands of EPD indicates a mining operation would pose a significant risk of draining the swamp.

EPD is more than capable of handling the decision, Chambers said.

“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.”

Chambers said the EPD is in the process of conducting a thorough review of the application, which initially covered 1,200 acres and required the OK of the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers. Approval from the corps is no longer necessary.

According to the permit request, the northern boundary of the proposed mining site is approximately 2.9 miles southeast from the nearest boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Regarded as the headwaters of the St. Marys and Suwannee rivers, the swamp supports habitats for a number of threatened and endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, wood storks and indigo snakes, and is home to more than 600 plant species. In 1971, because it is among the largest intact freshwater ecosystem in the world, the refuge was declared a Wetland of International Importance.

The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America.

The site is close to St. George, 70 miles south of Brunswick, in Charlton County.

“EPD will hold a public meeting and an official public comment period before permitting decisions are made,” Chambers said. “We expect (Fish & Wildlife Service) and possibly other agencies to participate in the public notice and comment period.”

Chambers said updates will be posted on the EPD website as the process progresses and opportunities for input arise.

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