Proposal to mine near Okefenokee Swamp raises old fears

August 20, 2019, 8:27 a.m.

The Okefenokee Swamp is a shallow wetland covering 438,000 acres across the Georgia-Florida line. The swamp, which is estimated to be about 7,000 years old, is home to eight different habitat types, ranging from prairies and swamp islands to four types of forests. There are more than 200 species of birds and dozens of species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish that live there.

Located in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the swamp is one of the National Park Service's National Natural Landmarks. It's also one of the world's largest intact freshwater ecosystems.

But the swamp — which likely derives its name from the Choctaw words for "land of the trembling earth" — could be disrupted by an outside force. The Georgia Conservancy warns that a proposed titanium mine threatens the swamp's ecology.

Alabama-based Twin Pines is seeking a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mine for heavy metals on a 12,000-acre tract near the southeastern edge of the swamp, according to the conservancy.

An alligator sunbathes on a fallen log in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. An alligator sunbathes on a fallen log in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Catie Leary)

This isn't the first time mining has been proposed in the Okefenokee. DuPont proposed a similar plan to mine titanium dioxide in 1997 but abandoned the plan after protests from environmental groups who said there wasn't enough research to determine mining's possible impact on the swamp.

The Twin Pines process would involve digging down an average of 50 feet, which the conservancy says is deep enough to impact adjacent wetlands and permanently impact the hydrology of the entire swamp.

Some are concerned that mining for titanium and zirconium could impact water levels, water quality and changes in groundwater flow in Trail Ridge. The group also believes mining could impact specific ecosystems — specifically, the removal of the minerals could affect the habitat of threatened species like the gopher tortoise and other species.

"It's not, 'Here they come again threatening our precious Okefenokee Swamp,'" Chip Campbell, a longtime resident of the area and owner of Okefenokee Adventures, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "For those of us who are here, this is part of a larger discussion about mineral sand mining and the ecological impact it has on rivers and wetlands and the economic integrity of the region."

At a public meeting in Folkston, Georgia, Twin Pines representatives explained how wetlands and plant life would be restored after mining is completed and endangered wildlife like the tortoises would be relocated, The Brunswick News reported. But some people were concerned that heavy metals from the mining could get into the nearby St. Marys River.

The Georgia Conservancy has requested that the Army Corps hold a public hearing on the mining permit application. The comment period has been extended until Sept. 12 for public input. (To comment, see information under "How can you help?")