Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, a private company based out of Alabama, filed a 565-page application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers July 12, 2019. The public notice states the company is requesting permission to mine on 12,000 acres of land just outside of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in search of Zirconium and Titanium.
Steven Ingle, from Twin Pines Minerals, told the Herald the company actually only possesses approximately 9,000 acres, not 12,000. “Of the 9,000 acres, there is a limited area that will actually be mined,” he said.
The first mining phase is the currently proposed project area of 2,414 acres. The area will be mined in phases. Each phase will be mined at approximately 25-40 acres per month. If the permit is approved, the company would mine in approximately 225 phases to cover the 9,000 acres (at 40 acres per phase).
“During the current project, we would actually only disturb 1,600 acres out of the 2,414,” said Ingles.
The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America and home to many endangered animals. It is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia, and was included in National Geographic’s Top 100 Most Beautiful Places in the World. In 2016 alone, around 600,000 people visited the refuge.
“We want people to realize how special the swamp is,” said Refuge Manager Michael Lusk.
The application states 522 acres of wetlands, including 2,454 feet of tributaries, would be temporarily effected by the first phase of mining. Sixty-five acres of wetland, and 4,658 feet of tributaries will face permanent impact during the same phase. The extent to this damage will be based on the amount of infrastructure made for the project.
The TPM application did however state the business will backfill and grade the land about 30 days after excavation, and replant in the appropriate seasons.
“Based on the amount of permanent damage, the mining could still effect the top soil for planting trees, which could then cause issues for natural habitats,” said Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman.
Endangered animals, such as the Gopher Tortoise and Gopher Frog, were found within the proposed area. The Corps stated they would move the animals for protection. However, the Land of Trembling Earth is home to more than 300 different species, which could be effected as well. Ingles says Twin Pines has worked with highly-skilled professionals during the long process of filing the application.
“The Corps of Engineers is in charge of this project, and the Savannah District does a fantastic job in meeting regulations to keep the Okefenokee area safe and secure,” he stated.
The swamp is the headwater to the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers, meaning they begin with the Okefenokee. Issues that may arise during this project could flow in either direction. Suwanee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman expressed concern about the effects on the neighboring waterways. “Anything that effects the swamp effects the Suwanee,” he said, “with mining – all sorts of things can go wrong”.
The Suwannee alone flows through 30-plus counties between Georgia and Florida, and three branches of the river are inside the Okefenokee.
Miners plan to dig 25-50 feet into the earth. “The site we’re on is not below sea level,” Ingle told the Herald, “we are 120-150 feet above.”
In some spaces of the property, it ranges as high as 150-feet. However, there are concerns of pollution.
“During Hurricane Irma, the only pollution spills in the Suwannee River Basin were three from Chemours mines on Trail Ridge in Baker and Bradford counties,” said Quarterman, “Do we want to risk that on Trail Ridge in Charlton County, where downhill is either the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge or the St. Marys River?”.
Employees of the refuge, local riverkeeper agencies, and concerned citizens are currently reading through the application, but feel there is more information needed.
“They have been very generous with sharing all their data,” stated Chip Campbell at a recent Charlton County Commissioners meeting. “We’ve got some other concerns we would like to talk about – specifically impacts on roughly a mile of streams and tributaries on down to the St. Marys River.”
Members of the St. Marys Riverkeeper Board will submit a full Environmental Impact Statement request to try to answer more of their questions.
“It is still very early for us,” said Susie Heisey with the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. “We still need to fully review the package to formulate an opinion”.
The public comment period, meant for citizens to express their concerns, has been extended another 30 days. The deadline is now September 12. Anyone wishing to comment on this application should submit comments in writing to the Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, Attention: Ms. Holly Ross, 1104 North Westover Boulevard, Suite 9, Albany, Georgia, 31707, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Public hearings have also been scheduled. The first meeting will be held Tuesday, August 13 at 5:30 p.m. in the county annex auditorium. The second hearing is set for Wednesday, August 14 at 5:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the firehouse in St. George.