The US Army Corps of Engineers on Friday rescinded its approval of a mining project threatening the Okefenokee Swamp.
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael L. Connor revoked the approval because the agency failed to consult with the Muscogee Creek Nation as required. However, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals may restart the permitting process, and the company has indicated that it intends to do so.
“We have said since the day we announced our plans that we will follow the regulations before us at all times,” Twin Pines Minerals president Steve Ingle said in an email. “The fact that there seems to have been a change is no surprise, it’s not the first time and it probably won’t be the last. We have no say in what regulators are responsible for doing.
Twin Pines proposed to mine titanium dioxide and other heavy minerals about three miles from the edge of Okefenokee National Nature Preserve along a line of ancient sand dunes called Trail Ridge. Conservation groups have protested the project since it was first proposed in 2019, saying it threatened to disrupt the flow of water into and out of the marsh.
The Okefenokee Swamp is one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in the world and is renowned for its black waters, starry night skies and breathtaking vistas. More than 402,000 acres are protected in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the eastern United States and home to hundreds of plant and animal species. The Okefenokee has been named a World Heritage Site.
The Corps’ decision hinges on its changing authority to regulate wetland use. The Trump administration narrowed the definition of “jurisdictional wetlands,” removing the need for a federal permit for 556 acres of wetlands owned by Twin Pines. The Biden administration reversed the Trump-era decision.
In recent years, the Corps’ Savannah District has made two decisions regarding these wetlands targeted by the Twin Pines mine, excluding them from their jurisdiction in October 2020 and March 2021. In both cases, the Muscogee Nation (Creek) requested consultations.
“(I) it is my political decision that the Corps should have honored these requests for government-to-government consultation,” Connor wrote.
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The name “Okefenokee” recalls the swamp’s ties to indigenous peoples. It means the “Land of the Shaking Earth” in the creek language, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. And Trail Ridge, which forms a natural dam for the Okefenokee, got its name because it served as a walking route for native people.
The Muscogee Nation is now a self-governing Native American tribe based in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. It is the fourth largest tribe in the United States with 86,100 citizens. Representatives for the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did Marian (Vonnie) McCormick, Senior Chief of the Lower Muskogee Tribe in Georgia.
The Twin Pines mining project emerged about two decades after Dupont Corp. proposed mining in the same area. “The people of Georgia as well as the leaders of the state and country have overwhelmingly rejected” this proposal, as a state legislature bill stated earlier this year. The bipartisan bill to shut down mining on Trail Ridge died in committee, despite broad support. Dupont’s successor, Chemours, agreed earlier this year to avoid mining near the Okefenokee after coming under pressure from militant Catholic sisters who own shares in the company.
Mining opponents, including Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga), continued to press for a shutdown. Ossoff visited the Okefenokee last year and lobbied the US EPA and US Army Corps to reconsider the proposal.
“Hydrological and biological analysis of the impact of this mine suggests that it could cause serious and irreversible damage to the marsh, destroying the marsh not only as a place where people can go to have fun and participate in nature , but also as a vital natural resource, a wetland ecosystem, a biodiverse habitat for valuable wildlife,” Ossoff said at a press conference late last month.
Environmentalists applaud the decision
Conservation groups were delighted with the Corps’ decision.
“Twin Pines has long eluded federal oversight and scrutiny,” said Christian Hunt, Southeast representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “With public process restored, Twin Pines should spare the Okefenokee and scrap this project once and for all.”
“Mining on the doorstep of a rare ecological treasure like Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp defies common sense, and we are thrilled that this announcement removes the threat to hundreds of acres of wetlands in critically important,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney and head of the Clean Water Advocacy Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The formal reversal of illegal decisions made by the previous administration restores protection to wetlands that are vital to the marsh’s unique ecosystems and allows the many Georgians, visitors from across the country, and people from around the world who enjoy visiting, paddling and explore this iconic place to continue to do so.
Twin Pines seemed fearless, however, saying he could mine without harming the Okefenokee.
“It should be noted that for the most part, the regulations, if enacted, will only reinstate the authorization requirements that we were already addressing in federal applications prior to the release of the Trump ruling,” Ingles wrote. “We intend to go ahead with our application and meet all the requirements.
“…All dredge mining will take place at elevations above the highest water level of the swamp and approximately three miles from the nearest boundary of the refuge. More than just a desire altruistic to ensure the preservation of marshes and cultural resources, it is just good business, and we would not invest millions of dollars in the authorization process if we were not sure of our capacities to achieve these Goals. “
Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, predicted that with the Corps’ re-engagement, the mining operation is unlikely to pass the required environmental impact level study.
“It feels like we’re back to square one and that’s a great place to start!” she texted. “And now we have more information from independent scientists that mining will harm the marsh, the St. Marys River and the outdoor recreation industry that depends on it.”