This coverage is made possible through a partnership between Grist and WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station.
Emotions ran high during a pair of public meetings last week discussing a plan to allow a company to mine for heavy minerals less than three miles from Georgia’s iconic Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the country’s most intact swamp ecosystem.
“Please don’t let them mine what God has put for us here to enjoy, and generations beyond us,” said Sheila Carter, a former Okefenokee guide, to representatives from the Environmental Protection Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources during a Thursday Zoom hearing. She was one of more than 70 people ranging from state representatives to high school students, who spoke out against the mine, which scientists warn could change the water level in the Okefenokee watershed.
The hours-long meetings were part of the 60-day public comment period on the Mining Land Use Plan drafted by the Twin Pines Minerals company. The vast majority of participants spoke in defense of the swamp, citing reasons such as the Okefenokee’s importance as a habitat and a carbon sink. Many shared impassioned messages about their own experiences there, such as being inspired as children by the refuge’s beauty.
Atlanta high school junior Zain Khemani recently visited the Okefenokee for the first time on a school field trip. He told the meeting he learned more there about wildlife and biology than he has in a classroom.
“I’ve never been in a wilderness like that before,” Khemani said. “As someone who’s lived my entire life in the city, it was genuinely magical to learn from the wilderness.”
The proceedings are more than just a place for people to vent their feelings. While the wildlife refuge is technically protected by the federal government, a short-lived Trump-era rule has left the decision surrounding the current mining proposal up to the state. In national news, the Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a case that could settle decades of legal ambiguity about which wetlands should receive federal protection under the Clean Water Act. But legal experts say that any protections from the court’s decision might not apply to projects like the Twin Pine mine, which has already passed certain milestones in the permitting process.
Federal officials have wrangled for years over what waterways are and are not covered by the Clean Water Act. The Obama administration expanded those rules, the Trump administration reversed course, and the Biden administration reversed the reversal. The Supreme Court ruling is expected to help untangle some of that back and forth.
That’s not to say the decision will be good news for many of the country’s bogs and wetlands. The case could “eliminate longstanding safeguards for tens of millions of acres of wetlands that help protect our communities from flooding and pollution,” according to Kelly Moser, leader of the Clean Water Defense Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed an amicus brief in the case.
In the case of the Okefenokee, the nearby Twin Pines mine received its project clearance under the Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which removed the protection of the Clean Water Act from huge swaths of streams and wetlands across the United States. Under that rule, all the waters associated with the project site were abruptly excluded from federal protection. The rule was vacated after 16 months by a federal judge, but several projects, including Twin Pines, were allowed to proceed.
Environmental groups have sued to place the mine back under federal jurisdiction, but for now, the decision lies with Georgia’s EPD. A bill before the Georgia state legislature seeks to ban future mining on Trail Ridge, the key geological feature where the proposed mine is located. The Okefenokee Protection Act was introduced last month by Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor and signed by a bipartisan group of about 50 lawmakers. It would block future mining, including any expansions of the current mine footprint, but wouldn’t affect the current proposal. The measure has yet to receive a hearing, though an assistant to the chair of the relevant committee said Friday that it will.
For its part, Twin Pines has said that the plan currently up for Georgia state approval is a demonstration project it intends to expand upon. At just under 600 acres, the Okefenokee mine would be substantially smaller than a 2,000-acre demonstration mine the company proposed in 2019. But depending on the Supreme Court ruling and what happens at the state level, future phases of the project could face much stricter reviews.
If the current mining proposal moves forward, it would require several state permits – meaning another round of public comments and, likely, opposition. According to state law and EPD guidance, the mining land use plan has to be “consistent with the land use in the area of the mine.”
Twin Pines Minerals contends the mine is consistent land use, citing a letter from the administrator of Charlton County, where the mine would be located. The letter says no zoning prohibits the mine, and points to a county commission resolution supporting it.
But many public commenters were not convinced. They pointed out the land surrounding the mine is used primarily for the wildlife refuge or for timber growth and harvesting. They worried the mine could harm both by lowering the groundwater level, depriving the swamp and timber farmers of water and increasing the risk of wildfire.
Courtney Reich of the Georgia Conservancy pointed to the comprehensive plan the county adopted in 2020, which recognizes the conservation lands in the Okefenokee as a priority.
“Protection of this important resource and support for the ecotourism industry features heavily in the plan and its stated goals,” Reich said of the refuge, which draws more than half a million visitors annually and has been identified as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Permitting a mine which puts this refuge at risk is in direct conflict with the comprehensive plan.”
With so many technicalities to consider and many well-funded groups invested in the outcome, the legal and legislative battles over the nation’s wetlands are expected to continue for some time. But many of the commenters at the Okefenokee hearing pleaded with officials to keep the bigger picture in mind.
“There are some things that are just not worth risking,” said Jack Spalding of the Georgia River Network. “This is one of those things.”