The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers no longer has jurisdiction over a proposed mine in Charlton County near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division now has the responsibility to determine a permit request by Twin Pines Minerals to mine heavy minerals near the world-famous refuge.
The Alabama-based company changed its application to mine last summer to mine on a smaller footprint — 376 acres — than 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.
Gov. Brian Kemp, who visited Folkston last week, has not taken a position over the controversial plan to mine near the Okefenokee, the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.
Environmental lawyer Josh Marks said he was surprised the governor didn’t express his position on the proposed mining project while in Charlton County.
“The governor has heard from thousands of Georgians who oppose the mine, and EPD has received a report from the (U.S) Fish & Wildlife Service stating there is a significant risk that the mine will drain the swamp,” Marks said. “So I had hoped the governor would have at least expressed concern about the swamp or reminded the public how important the Okefenokee is to Georgia. He still has an opportunity to do that, however, and we hope he will soon.”
Marks, an Atlanta lawyer and a former Sierra Club campaign coordinator who helped defeat an effort by DuPont to mine next to the swamp, said it is now up to the state to decide whether to award a mining permit and permits to withdraw groundwater and discharge pollutants to the air and surface water.
He predicted a mining permit will create a “domino effect,” potentially leading to multiple mining operations along the southeastern boundary of the swamp.
“Chemours, the successor to DuPont that mines for titanium elsewhere in Southeast Georgia, is apparently poised to buy the project if permits are issued,” he said.
A letter-writing campaign has been mounted to urge Chemours’ CEO to publicly disavow any intent to mine or buy any titanium that is mined next to the Okefenokee, Marks said.
One concern about the agency now responsible for approving or denying a permit is the EPD’s lack of expertise on hydrology, which Marks said is an important issue.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service does have hydrology expertise, and they have said there is a significant risk that mining will drain the swamp,” he said. “It’s critical that EPD accept help from Fish & Wildlife to examine that critical piece of the puzzle.”
If mining drains the swamp, the peat beds could be exposed to a catastrophic fire that could burn for months, he said. In the 1950s, a wildfire burned in the Okefenokee for a year after the peat caught fire.
There are also concerns of impacts to tourism from the noise and light that will be generated from the mining operation.
There are legal challenges to overturn last year’s changes to the Clean Water Act that took the decision about the modified mining project from the Army Corps of Engineers and gave it to the state.
“It will take a new federal rule making for the corps to reassert jurisdiction over the mine, which would take a long time,” Marks said. “Thus, all of the permitting decisions right now are exclusively with the state. That is why we hope Gov. Kemp will stand up for the swamp and say no to Twin Pines and any other mining next to the Okefenokee.”