Ask the Georgia Legislature to act while GA-DNR keeps passing the buck about mining near the Okefenokee Swamp 2023-01-27

GA DNR keeps passing the buck about the proposal to strip mine for titanium within three miles of the Okefenokee Swamp, by miners from Alabama, Twin Pines Minerals, LLC. The Swamp is the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers and it interchanges surface water with groundwater all the way down to the Floridan Aquifer, from which we all drink.

Please go ahead and send in your comment on the Mining Land Use Plan.

And ask your Georgia House Representative to sign on to HB 71, the Okefenokee Protection Act. That bill will not stop this permit application, but it would stop further expansion of that mine and any other mines on the east side of the Swamp.

[Trail Ridge Land LLC]
Trail Ridge Land LLC
Land the Charlton County Tax Assessors show owned by Trail Ridge Land LLC.
The northwest corner buts right up against the Swamp.

Floridians, you can comment. And you can ask your Georgia friends and relatives to ask their statehouse members to sign on to HB 71.

Back in September, Georgia DNR Board Chair Bill Jones said he was looking for a signal from U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. He hinted the GA DNR board might vote a resolution about the proposal after a public comment period begins.

In November, she sent Georgia Governor Brian Kemp a letter saying the mining plan poses “unacceptable risk” to the ecology of the Okefenokee Swamp.

GA-DNR’s subsidiary GA-EPD opened a 60-day public comment period on the Mining Land Use Plan on January 19, 2023.

Last month, after GA-EPD head Rick Dunn spoke to the GA-DNR Board about that public comment period, Bill Jones said he’s now looking for input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And there was still no resolution from the GA-DNR board.

However, Chair Jones revealed that when he informally polled the board members, he did not find any who said they were for mining near the Swamp. “But I think there are a number of people — and I get it — that are supportive of the (regulatory) process, because we’re in that process.”

Mary Landers, The Current, January 27th, 2023, Updated January 28th, 2023, EPD director updates board on mining project near Okefenokee: Department of Natural Resources Board members pose questions to top regulator on mining plans,

At its regular board meeting Friday, the state’s top environmental regulator gave the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board a brief progress report on the permits for the controversial Twin Pines titanium dioxide mine. At its closest, the proposed strip mine will be less than 3 miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Actually, that’s just the demonstration mine of the current permit applications. As FWS wrote to former U.S. Senator Perdue back in November 2019:

“The initial project location is the farthest that mining activity would be from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) boundary and the Okefenokee Swamp. Any additional mining that occurs within the 12,000-acre permit area would be closer to the refuge. The northwest boundary of the permit area is within a half mile from the refuge boundary and 400 feet from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.”

FWS was pretty clear in that response that mining near the Okefenokee Swamp is a bad idea.

Back to the recent article:

“Given the proposal’s proximity to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge as well as kind of the Army Corps of Engineers process that was cut short, the EPD has elected to place the draft mining land use plan out to public review and comment,” Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Rick Dunn told the board. The comment period began Jan. 19 and ends March 20, 2023.

EPD is a division of the state DNR.

The mining plan describes the proposed mining processes, along with provisions for protecting adjacent watersheds, and a description of how the land will be restored post-mining.

“In this instance, the plan must also identify impacts to adjacent natural resources and when applicable, the plan to alleviate and/or mitigate the effects of such impact,” Dunn said.

EPD’s job is to determine that the application and the supporting materials meets all statutory and regulatory requirements, Dunn said. His three-minute mining update complete, he then invited board members to ask questions about the project. Three did.

Board Member Miki Thomaston, Manager of Technical Marketing at Rayonier Advanced Materials and one of only two women on the 19-member board, asked Dunn about criticism she’d heard regarding the selection of the river gauge used in modeling the mine’s effects. A leading critic of that modeling, UGA hydrology professor C. Rhett Jackson, argues against Twin Pines’ choice in a recent memo to EPD.

Dunn responded that while the gauge on the St. Marys River was farther from the mine, its data quality was higher.

Jackson maintains that proximity is paramount.

“The data at the Macclenny (Florida) gauge (which EPD is using) are irrelevant to the question,” he wrote in a text to The Current. “We wouldn’t analyze a Mississippi River flooding problem in Minneapolis using data from Memphis.”

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney and leader of the successful fight against DuPont’s titanium mining project in the 1990s, attended Friday’s meeting and said this line of questioning from the board was encouraging.

“We hope EPD will follow the lead of the independent scientific community that believes the gauge closest to the swamp is the correct data source and provides the most accurate assessment of the mine’s impacts,” Marks wrote in a text.

Two board members questioned EPD’s plan to hold the public meetings online only.

“What’s the downside of giving the public an opportunity to gather in person?” asked board member Nick Ayers, managing partner of Ayers Neugebauer & Co. and former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. “We’re a state led by the governor who did a great job of allowing the congregation of people. And if I had a lot of passion about an issue, I would feel isolated if the decision maker said you can’t actually speak with me.”

Ayers’ DNR biography indicates he is “a passionate outdoorsman and is actively leading the fight nationally to stop the Pebble Mine in Alaska.”

Dunn responded that the EPD has seen greater public participation with online meetings. And he emphasized that EPD is interested in analysis not opinion.

“I’m not interested in counting how many are in favor, and how many opposed,” Dunn told the board. “This is not our role.”

The DNR board met in St. Simons, ahead of the DNR’s annual “Weekend for Wildlife,” a fundraiser for the department’s Wildlife Conservation Section held at The Cloister at Sea Island and featuring small group wildlife trips led by DNR personnel.

After the meeting, Dunn said the state is pursuing an enforcement action against Twin Pines for a failure to obtain state licensing before drilling exploratory wells. But the permitting process is moving forward.

“There’s nothing that would hinder us from going forward with the mining land use plan,” he said.

After the meeting, outgoing Board Chairman Alfred W. “Bill” Jones, III, said the DNR needs to hear from scientists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge, about the same issues Jackson has raised. Jones informally polled the board regarding a possible anti-mining resolution but failed to find a consensus.

“I don’t think anybody necessarily is supportive of the idea of mining near the Okefenokee,” he said. “But I think there are a number of people — and I get it — that are supportive of the (regulatory) process, because we’re in that process.”

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current’s staff.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can join this fun and work by becoming a WWALS member today!