Twin Pines Mining Company has proposed a strip-mining operation close to the Okefenokee Swamp and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Learn about the swamp, the mine, and the controversy. At a minimum, science shows that mining will release heavy metals into the water supply and create a fire hazard.
What’s the main scoop?
There are conflicting reports around the potential environmental impact of the mine. Twin Pine’s scientists disagree with those from US Fish and Wildlife Service and many years of peer-reviewed research. The debate centers around if there will be temporary and/or permanent change to the Okefenokee.
The Okefenokee is not just a unique habitat that attracts tourism dollars and shelters endangered species. It is a wetland that filters hazardous materials out of the air and water. If temporarily damaged, it will release mercury, lead, and other heavy metals into the water supply and become a fire hazard. If permanently damaged, the region will lose water filtration, habitat, and economic benefits.
Legally, the burden of proof is on Twin Pines to show no negative impact to the Okefenokee Swamp and surrounding environment before the issuance of permits.
TL;DR & Recommendations
Currently, there is not enough evidence to support the claim that the mine will not cause temporary and permanent damage. Even temporary damage will release heavy metals in the waterways and create a fire hazard.
The following two recommendations are a method to mitigate against permanent loss to the unique ecosystem, which provides multiple benefits to the surrounding areas and their economies.
- The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) should ensure the conflicting studies are resolved before issuing a mining permit. Given the uniqueness and importance of the Okefenokee, it is recommended that Twin Pines demonstrate that there will be no permanent harm, and that there are mitigations against any temporary damage. Currently, the reports provided by Twin Pines have not been peer-reviewed by scientists and are not in concert with current scientific consensus.
- The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) should follow the Fish and Wildlife Services’ recommendation of determining whether Twin Pines proposition fits the definition of “…significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” set by the Council on Environmental Quality Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of NEPA. When issuing federal permits, the USACE should consider that other mining companies could follow Twin Pines lead if their application is approved. The precedent could result in creating more mining sites nearer to the Okefenokee than Trail Ridge, and more cumulative impact.
Overview of Conflicting Evidence
What does Twin Pines say?
At the request of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Twin Pines produced an Impact Report on Jan 14, 2020. This report has less stringent guidelines then an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which is not required due to the size of the mine.
This report states that there will be minimal impact on the surrounding area and that any change to water levels will be minimal and temporary. Hydrology models were provided as evidence for these claims.
What did the US Fish and Wildlife Service Say?
In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) stated that, “…we have concerns that the proposed project may pose risks to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (OKENWR) and the natural environment due to location associated activities, and cumulative effects of similar projects in the area.”
Major issues cited in the letter include the erosion of Trail Ridge as the eastern barrier of the swamp, demonstration mining would be shallower than future mining and might not reflect full future impacts, and Twin Pines’ use of an outdated hydrogeology model.
USFWS is concerned that water levels in the swamp, the St. Mary’s River, and Trail Ridge could drastically and permanently change, affecting the local ecosystem. Effects include making the swamp and surrounding areas more flammable, release of carbon and heavy metals stored in the Swamp, and danger to endangered, keystone species that inhabit the swamp, including gopher tortoises and the eastern indigo snake.
Okefenokee Science FAQ
The Okefenokee Swamp is a swamp comprised of peat and wetlands mainly in Clinch, Ware, and Charlton counties in Georgia and Baker County in Florida. It is about 438,000 acres and protected mainly by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Okefenokee Wilderness. It has been protected by the federal government since 1937, has been named a Wetland of International Importance, designated as a National Natural Landmark, and is listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Suwanee River and the St Mary’s River originate in the swamp. The eastern border of the Okefenokee Swamp is Trail Ridge, a geological formation that acts as a dam for the swamp water.
Image source: Tim Ross.
Wetlands serve as flood control, wildlife nurseries, and water filters. They are important part of the ecosystem.
Image From US Fish and Wildlife
Endangered species that rely on the swamp include wood storks, eastern indigo snakes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The below picture shows that HMS are stacked in layers like pancakes.
Photo and caption from https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2018/5045/sir20185045.pdf
HMS are a source of Titanium. Titanium is a component in aerospace and defense applications; however, over 95% of domestic consumption is for titanium dioxide, a pigment used in consumer products, mainly paint.
Total Acres – 2414
Acres to Mine – 1300
Maximum Depth – 70ft
Acres mines per month – 25-40
Total Acres – 1042
Acres to Mine – 898
Maximum Depth – 25-50ft
Acres per month – 8
If this is the case, mining of Trial Ridge would not destroy a barrier that creates the swamp and have only minimal impact or no impact on the water level in the Okefenokee Swamp.
The USFWS disagrees with this assessment. The evidence submitted to support this claim is not adequate and it has not been confirmed and/or peer-reviewed by other scientists. USFWS instead believes that if Trail Ridge is changed, water will flow out from the swamp in the west, and into the lower lying land in the east. The above picture on the right shows this theory.
The Twin Pine’s claim of temporary impact has not been validated or peer reviewed, and several studies indicate that the changes may cause the ecosystem to be unable to recover or sustain itself.
A study on the impact of oil sands mining in Alberta, Canada showed a significant release of carbon, and demonstrated over 50% permanent wetland loss. While Canada is a long way from Georgia, this study does indicate that there would be a release of stored carbon (which would happen immediately) and that restoring an ecosystem is a complex process.
According to a 30-year-career hydrologist, the impact report Twin Pines produced was missing several key pieces of information relating to the disposal of heavy-metal byproducts, withdrawing water from the Upper Floridian Aquifer, and induced recharge to shallow aquifers.
Twin Pines has not included contaminant transport or disposal information in their hydrogeology model. Twin Pines’ impact report includes scant detail about the properties of the Hawthorn Group, a ground layer the protects and confines water to the Upper Floridian aquifer. Mining could erode this protective layer and cause detrimental leakage of water from the aquifer. Twin Pines also failed to address the impact that induced, artificial recharging of an aquifer instead of natural recharge via precipitation would have on the OKE Swamp.
Additionally, around 22,000 comments were submitted to the EPD, voicing concern over the mine in response to the pending permit.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge entertains approximately 600,000 visitors each year, bringing business to the surrounding towns of St. Marys, Woodbine, and Kingsland. Non-residents account for $59.8 million of the total $64.7 million in recreational expenditures accrued by the four surrounding counties. The Okefenokee has created around 753 jobs, generating $17.2 million in employment income and $5.4 million worth of tax revenue.