Okefenokee bills, Georgia legislature 2024-02-21

As crossover day approaches in the Georgia legislature, events are moving faster about the proposed strip mine too near the Okefenokee Swamp.

In addition to a mining prohibition bill that has been in the legislature since last year, now there is a fine, draft permits, and two new bills, for increased criminal penalties, and for a mining moratorium (with a big catch).

None of these are likely to stop this specific “demonstration” mine, but some of them could prevent any further such mines.

Crossover day is the day by which a bill has to have been passed by one house to get into the other house. It’s February 29 this year, Thursday of next week.

[Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge: 15 miles]
Okefenokee NationaGl Wildlife Refuge: 15 miles
Map courtesy Prof. Can Denizman and students, Valdosta State University.

Draft Permits

As previously mentioned, On February 9, 2024, GA-EPD published draft permits (surface mining, water withdrawal, and air quality). for the applications by Twin Pines Minerals, LLC (TPM) to strip mine for titanium dioxide (TiO2) within three miles of the Okefenokee Swamp, between Moniac and St. George, Georgia. You have until April 9 to comment, and there is a public online meeting on March 5.

Details here:

Consent Orders

Back in January, I was told by a former state legislator that these miners be very careful to avoid infractions, because they had a lot of money riding on their venture. A week later, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) issued a Consent Order on TPM, saying back in 2018 the miners had drilled soil samples without a professional geologist or engineer supervising, as required by state law, and they also failed to provide a letter of credit or a performance bond. TPM “voluntarily” agreed to pay a tiny fine of $20,000. For more details, see Russ Bynum, AP, 24 January 2024, Company seeking to mine near Okefenokee will pay $20,000 to settle environmental violation claims.

This is not the first time TPM has been under a Consent Order. On February 7, 2019, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) levied a Consent Order on TPM and on Chemours, about Chemours mine sites on Trail Ridge in north Florida, where TPM was processing tailings. The Consent Order says TPM released wastewater after Hurricane Irma, did not collect required water quality samples, and did not file required reports.

So even before that 2019 Florida Consent Order, TPM had already committed infractions in 2018 in Georgia near the Okefenokee Swamp. Why should we trust these miners near the Okefenokee Swamp?


At least three bills are relevant to this mining situation.

HB 71

HB 71, the so-called Okefenokee Protection Act, was introduced by Rep. Darlene Taylor, D173 of Thomasville, last year. It would prohibit future permit applications for surface mining on Trail Ridge east of the Swamp.

Despite having I think 94 co-sponsors, HB 71 is still sitting in the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee, whose Chair, Lynn Smith, D70, has not given it a hearing.

Last week Rep. Steven Sainz, D180, also co-sponsored the bill. This matters, because his district is downstream on the St. Marys River from the Swamp.

That leaves the big holdout from HB 71 as still Rep. John Corbett, D 174, Lake Park, whose district runs along the GA-FL line from southern Lowndes County through Echols, Clinch, and Ware to Charlton County and the proposed mine site.

HB 436

HB 436, “Surface mining; revise maximum criminal penalties for violations”, was introduced last year by Rep. Corbett, co-sponsored among others by Darlne Taylor (sponsor of HB 71), Lynn Smith (the Chair who has been sitting on HB7 71) and James Burchett, D 176, Waycross. It is sponsored in the Senate by Sam Watson, D 11, Moultrie, and last week was voted out of committee in the Senate.

HB 436 increases the maxium penalty for misdemeanor conviction of certain surface mining violations from $1,000 to $10,000. That’s per day. Which is still not much, but more than nothing.

HB 1338

HB 1338, “Georgia Surface Mining Act of 1968; three-year moratorium on acceptance of applications for new permits; provisions”, was introduced today by Rep. Corbett, cosponsored among others by Steven Sainz, Chas Cannon, D 172, Moultrie, and Lynn Smith.

HB 1138 1338 summarizes itself as:

“A BILL to be entitled an Act to amend Part 3 of Article 2 of Chapter 4 of Title 12 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, the “Georgia Surface Mining Act of 1968,” so as to provide for a three-year moratorium on the acceptance of applications for new permits by the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources for surface mining utilizing dragline mining for heavy mineral sands; to prohibit tolling; to provide for administrative and judicial review and affirmation by operation of law; to provide for related matters; to provide for an effective date; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.”

The “other purposes” are a problem. After the moratorium, the bill would give the Office of State Administrative Hearings only 150 days to decide any appeal of a GA-EPD surface mining permit. Rep. Corbett explained his intent; see Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder, February 21, 2024, Latest bill targeting strip mining near Okefenokee receives mixed reaction from environmentalists,

If passed, HB 1338 would prevent Twin Pines from expanding the footprint of the initial pilot project in the next three years, although Corbett acknowledged that is likely too tight a window to be a factor for Twin Pines. The company would have to apply for another permit to expand, starting another multiyear process.

The main benefit of the new bill, Corbett said, is the data that would be collected should the Twin Pines project move forward.

“If they get a permit, it will probably be tied up in court for a year or so but then should have time to get some data to prove out this type of mining going forward,” Corbett said in an interview. “So, it just gives some guardrails around this area while they get some data. That’s all we’re trying to do.”

His bill also creates new limits for the appeals phase for future mining permit applications. For example, a permit would kick in if the Office of State Administrative Hearings does not make a final decision on an appeal within about five months. Corbett said that is meant to create some “certainty.”

I’d rather have certainty that the Okefenokee Swamp will be protected. How about you?

Better legislation

All these bills are better than nothing. But all of them avoid the main point: the Okefenokee Swamp and other sensitive waterways should be protected from surface mining and other intrusions such as landfills.

HB 71 would be a good start. The Georgia legislature should pass it.

However, HB 71 does nothing to protect the south and west sides of the Swamp and the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers. Meanwhile, just across the GA-FL line in Hamilton County, Florida, a huge phosphate mine is expected to wrap up within ten years. Then those miners may want new territory. The same phosphate deposits continue east across the Suwannee River into Columbia County, Florida. And north across the state line into Echols County, Georgia, right next to the Suwannee River.

Rather than complicated language to define Trail Ridge, much easier would be to legislate a distance from the Swamp. While the Swamp boundary may be hard to determine exactly, the boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR) is well-defined. Fifteen miles from ONWR would also protect the Suwannee River to the state line, and the St. Marys River around to where it turns east past Folkston.

A deeper problem is the assumption by many state legislators that the burden of proof is on those who oppose mines or landfills near water bodies. The other way around makes more sense: miners or landfillers should have to prove they will not adversely affect the waterbodies. For that, we need state constitutional amendments for Right to Clean Water in Georgia and Florida. That’s a tall order, but Pennsylvania and Montana did it back in the 1970s, and New York State did it a couple of years ago. We can do it, too.

Meanwhile, you can help stop this mine, and prevent others like it.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can help with clean, swimmable, fishable, drinkable, water in the 10,000-square-mile Suwannee River Basin in Florida and Georgia by becoming a WWALS member today!