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Federal officials continue to raise concerns about proposed mine near Georgia swamp, documents show

Federal officials continue to raise concerns about proposed mine near Georgia swamp, documents show
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Federal officials are continuing to express concerns about the potential environmental impacts of a proposed titanium mine near the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia while the company behind it has allegedly pushed back against the idea of a major government assessment of those impacts. 

In documents newly obtained by Defenders of Wildlife and shared with The Hill, officials say that the mine may pose environmental risks to the swamp and express doubt over an assessment by the company, Twin Pines Minerals LLC. 

Although officials have previously raised concerns about the project, the new documents show continued concern after Twin Pines submitted a proposal to reduce the size of the area that would be mined. 

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And in additional documents that were previously reported, a governmental official says that Twin Pines alleged that a government environmental impact statement (EIS) on the mine would be bad for business and offered an alternative. 

Twin Pines president Steve Ingle said in a statement provided to The Hill that studies have shown that the project will not impact water levels.

He added that the company would welcome an "environmental review" but said that an EIS would be extremely costly and time consuming. 

In a comment dated May 28, Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) field supervisor Donald Imm wrote that the mine could harm the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. 

“We have concerns that the proposed project may pose risks to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (OKENWR) and the natural environment due to the location, associated activities, and cumulative effects of similar projects in the area," he said. "We opine that the impacts are not sufficiently known and whatever is done may be permanent." 

Imm’s letter raised concerns about the impacts to both the environment and animal species and noted the importance of the swamp on the area's tourism economy. 

And an assessment dated July 17 by an FWS hydrologist raised what it described as “errors in conclusions drawn concerning the impact of proposed mining on swamps to the west of the 2020 proposed mining area.”

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It also criticized an assertion from the company that “the swamps to the west of the study area, including the Okefenokee Swamp, will receive a fractional increase in both stream and groundwater discharge due to the proposed mine." 

It said this was “unsupported" given "uncertainties and errors.”

Meanwhile, an Army Corps of Engineers official said in a previously reported email from January that “the applicant was adamant that doing the EIS right now was unacceptable for his business, but did not necessarily dispute the fact that one was likely necessary at some point.”

“Instead, they offered the option of reducing the project such that it would be a 2-3 year ‘demonstration project’ which would allow some work to commence and collect data in support of the larger overall project,” the email said. 

The company had initially proposed mining 1,450 acres in 2019, but withdrew that permit application in February of 2020, just weeks after the email saying it had offered the option of the reduced project. 

And in March it submitted an application for a permit for a “demonstration mining project for a reduced mining area of approximately 898 acres.”

In response to the documents, Ingle said in a statement that "questions have been raised, but they have been answered."

"Extensive studies have demonstrated conclusively that the proposed mine will have no impact on water levels in the Okefenokee Swamp. The original study was performed by Dr. Robert Holt, world-renowned hydrogeologist and professor of geology and geological engineering at the University of Mississippi, and it was confirmed by hydrologists and geologists at the University of Alabama," Ingle said. 

"Dr. Holt has also addressed the questions presented by FWS. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed the study and stated that it agrees with Dr. Holt’s conclusions," he added. "We welcome this intense scrutiny because we understand how important it is to protect the swamp, and a consensus of experts will strengthen our demonstration that the swamp absolutely is not at risk."

Ingle also said that the company would welcome "environmental review" but and said that formal environmental impact statements are "bureaucratic exercises that cost millions of dollars and take many years to complete."   

"EIS is rarely required for activities on private land," he said. "There was no reason why an EIS should have been required even for the original project."

E&E News reported earlier this year that although environmentalists suspected that the company changed its proposal so that the government would do a more limited assessment, Ingle denied that assertion. 

He told the news outlet that “we are going to do whatever the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers instructs us to do. Thus, we took an even more conservative approach than proposed in our initial application.”

In his statement to The Hill, he said, "We thought it would help put the public at ease to downsize the project and further minimize the impacts."

Meanwhile, the new hydrology assessment from FWS argued that the 2020 proposed project might not be a useful “demonstration” for the 2019 proposal because the 2019 proposal was “ambiguous” regarding the depth of the mining in certain areas. 

Environmentalists said that the new FWS comments and assessment at the very least indicate that an environmental impact statement should be conducted. 

“At a minimum, those comment letters should absolutely trigger the requirement for an EIS,” said Christian Hunt, a southeast program representative for Defenders. 

“When you’re dealing with a place with this significance, with this many unknowns and when sister agencies are casting doubt upon the safety of the proposed operations, then very clearly and unequivocally the need for an EIS is triggered,” Hunt said. “We’ve said all along that ... this company is never going to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that mining won’t permanently impair the swamp and for that reason this permit application should just be rejected outright.”

The Okefenokee Swamp is located in Georgia and Florida and occupies 438,000 acres. Of that, 402,000 acres make up the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to endangered species including the red-cockaded woodpecker, wood storks and indigo snakes, as well as other wildlife.

Environmentalists have raised concerns that mining could harm the swamp’s ability to move and store water and that potentially lowered water levels could also destroy habitats, increase wildfire risk and impact nearby rivers. 

Twin Pines, however, says on its website that “mining activities will not impact the Okefenokee Swamp.”

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The new documents come as a different proposed mining project, the Pebble Mine in Alaska, has garnered significant national attention. 

In secretly recorded tapes by environmentalists who had been posing as investors, Pebble executives expressed a desire to extend Pebble’s lifetime beyond what they had indicated publicly. 

The controversy added to what was already a contentious debate, as that mine is located near a major salmon-producing area, raising concerns about potential impacts on water quality and dividing Republicans, some of whom say that the mine will be bad for fishermen. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has moved to streamline environmental reviews amid industry complaints that they can take years to complete. 

It recently finalized its rollback of the bedrock environmental law called the National Environmental Policy Act, which reduced the amount of time the environmental impact statements can take from about 4.5 year to considerably less time. 

Updated on Oct. 19 at 3:36 p.m.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained an assertion from Twin Pines CEO Steve Ingle that the Army Corps of Engineers had determined that an EIS was not necessary for the downsized project. Ingle later clarified that his statement was incorrect and the Corps did not make any such determination, adding that this conclusion was instead reached by company technicians. The assertion has been removed from this report.