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Controversial mining to proceed near Georgia swamp without federal permit

Controversial mining to proceed near Georgia swamp without federal permit
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A controversial plan to mine near the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia will proceed without a federal permit following a Trump administration rollback of waterway protections. 

Twin Pines Minerals intends to extract minerals like titanium in a 600-acre area near the swamp, a plan about which environmentalists have raised concerns. 

“We have reduced the size of the proposed mine in Charlton County to less than 600 acres, and we have reconfigured its footprint to ensure there will be no impact to ‘waters of the United States’ as defined by the new Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” said a statement from Twin Pines president Steve Ingle. 

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Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Billy Birdwell confirmed that Twin Pines on Wednesday withdrew its request for a permit to mine an 898-acre area near the swamp. The 600-acre project will still need a permit from the state of Georgia. 

Birdwell said in an email that the Army Corps conducted a jurisdictional determination after the Navigable Waters Rule went into effect and determined that “much of the area no longer required a permit from the Corps of Engineers.”

“Twin Pines may mine on non-jurisdictional wetlands without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They will need permits from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources,” he said, stressing that this was not a decision made by the Corps but rather its application of the new rule. 

The Navigable Waters Rule, which limited the scope of which bodies of water receive protection under federal law, was finalized this year by the Trump administration and went into effect in June. 

Ingle said in a statement to The Hill on Wednesday that moving ahead with mining will not impact the Okefenokee’s water level. 

“There is no risk to the swamp because we are far enough away (more than 3 miles), and because all mining will occur at an elevation higher than the swamp. Our studies have shown that mining can be conducted safely, such that it will not impact the area’s waterways, groundwater systems, or the swamp itself,” he said. 

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Environmentalists have fought against mining near the swamp, saying 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. 

Christian Hunt, the Southeast Program Representative with Defenders of Wildlife pledged to “fight as long as it takes” to see the Okefenokee’s protection, in an email to The Hill.

"A slight reduction in acreage makes no difference when operations stand to compromise and lower the water table of the swamp," he said. "The only data, anywhere, to suggest that mining would prove benign was that commissioned by Twin Pines itself. Since the government has abandoned its duties, we intend to utilize every tool at our disposal to prevent Twin Pines from spoiling the refuge and causing irreversible damage."

Documents recently shared with The Hill showed that officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service had expressed concerns about the now-withdrawn proposal to mine 898 acres near the swamp. 

One official wrote in May that the project could have posed “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," adding, "We opine that the impacts are not sufficiently known and whatever is done may be permanent."

In a statement to The Hill on Wednesday, Ingle referred to the 600 acre project as a “demonstration project.”

“Our only plans at present are to conduct the demonstration project on the footprint that is less than 600 acres if and when the state approves,” he said. 

Emails that have previously been reported on by The Hill and others show an Army Corps officials saying in January, when Twin Pines had proposed mining a 1,450-acre area, that the company had proposed a “‘demonstration project’ which would allow some work to commence and collect data in support of the larger overall project.”

The 898-acre project was also referred to as a demonstration project when it was being proposed.  

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.