1. Home
  2. Knowledge Base
  3. Articles
  4. About the Okefenokee Swamp and Proposed Mine

About the Okefenokee Swamp and Proposed Mine

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.

The Okefenokee area and proposed mining site. From: https://protectokefenokee.org/resources/

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.

  1. 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 Currently, the reports provided by Twin Pines have not been peer-reviewed by scientists and are not in concert with current scientific consensus.
  2. 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.

UPDATE: On Apr 20, 2021 the Georgia Environmental Protection Division provided comments to Twin Pines on their various permits. Read the full document here. Comments include requests for more information or clarification on:

  1. What is the plan after the “demonstration phase” is complete?
  2. Detailed specifics and reworked modeling and analysis on the impacts to the Floridian Aquifer including: groundwater, pumping, individual wells that already draw from the aquifer, and water quality.
  3. The reclamation plan including:
    1. Address the feasibility on reclamation only rebuilding to 7 to 10 feet below current ground level, but the water table is less then 7 feet below ground level.
    2. What type, and where, will the wetland vegetation be restored.
  4. Addressing protected species.
  5. The source of power for the mining operation, including need for new power transmission lines, payment for their installation, and route they will take.

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?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) disagrees with the Twin Pines Impact Report.

In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 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.

Take Action

Heard enough? Please write the Georgia Environmental Protection Division your comments on this proposed mine.

OR

Learn more about the science by reading through the below FAQ and watching this amazing Science Tales and Trails Video.

Okefenokee Science FAQ

What is the Okefenokee Swamp?
As a National Wildlife Refuge with a unique ecosystem, the Okefenokee Swamp is on a list to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a unique ecosystem that provides economic opportunities for the State of Georgia, is home to a diverse group of animal and plant species, many of whom are endangered, and holds importance for Native American tribes who have worked or lived on the land for generations
A picture of a kayak on the Okefenokee Image Source.

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.
Why is the Okefenokee Swamp Unique?
The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern U.S, and one of the only self-contained wetlands in the world that is naturally functioning. Blackwater forms when slow flowing water essentially “seeps” vegetation in swamps and wetlands causing acidic water that resembles the color of tea.
Image of a blackwater creek. Shows the water looks like sweet tea.
Image source: Tim Ross.
What is important about peat and wetlands?
Peatlands are a carbon and heavy metal sink. When they are destroyed, they release the stored carbon, and also accumulated mercury, lead, and other metals. If these metals are released in large quantities, they may flow via the water into neighboring rivers and water supplies, and end up being absorbed by fish, wildlife, and/or crops. Mercury, lead, and other heavy metals are hazardous to human health, even in small quantities.

Wetlands serve as flood control, wildlife nurseries, and water filters. They are important part of the ecosystem.
What wildlife does the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge Have?
The swamp is home to 49 species of mammals, 233 species of birds, 64 species of reptiles, 39 species of fish, 37 species of amphibians, 1,000 moth species, and 600 plant species.
Bear in a treeImage From US Fish and Wildlife

Endangered species that rely on the swamp include wood storks, eastern indigo snakes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
What is the water system at the Okefenokee?
An aquafer is an underground area of porous material rock that contains water. Aquafers are sometimes used as water sources via wells. A surficial aquifer is one that is near the surface of the land. It contains continuously moving water which is fed by storms, runoff, and waterways and then discharged back into surrounding streams and waterways.  The area in and around the Okefenokee Swamp contains a surficial aquifer that feeds the Swamp and provides water to local waterways and wells.
What is Trail Ridge?
Trail Ridge, the eastern border of the Okefenokee Swamp is a narrow geological formation (1-2 km wide) that runs about 160km from Georgia into Florida. It is about 46-77m high, bordering the Okefenokee Swamp. In several places along Trail Ridge, there are formations of heavy mineral sands (HMS).

The below picture shows that HMS are stacked in layers like pancakes.

A cross section of Heavy Mineral Sands in layers. 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.
What is Strip Mining?
Strip mining involves stripping all vegetation and soil out of the ground and then removing the valuable minerals. Sometimes, the stripped soil is returned to the site of the mine in a process known as “backfilling,” which has been proposed for the Twin Pines mine.
What is the proposed Twin Pines Mine?
Twin Pines has purchased 12,000 acres along Trail Ridge.
 
1st Proposal
Total Acres – 2414
Acres to Mine – 1300
Maximum Depth – 70ft
Acres mines per month – 25-40

2nd Proposal
Total Acres – 1042
Acres to Mine – 898
Maximum Depth – 25-50ft
Acres per month – 8
What’s all the fuss about?
On the surface of Trail Ridge, if water falls on the east side of the ridge it flows to the east, and if it falls on the west side of the ridge it flows to the west. Twin Pines produced an Impact Report on Jan 14, 2020 that states that Trail Ridge is not a “dam” for the Okefenokee Swamp, but rather a hydraulic barrier to groundwater. This means that underground, the water flows just like it would above ground: east goes east, and west goes west. The below picture on the left shows this theory.

Comparison of Twin Pine's postulated water flow vs. US Fish & WIldlife Service.  Twin pines shows water splitting along the ridge, US Fish shows water flowing from higher to lower.
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.
What will happen to the Okefenokee if the water levels drop?
Any drop in water levels will release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere and the stored heavy metals into the water supply. Depending on how long the water level is lowered, the swamp may dry out and turn into a reservoir of flammable dried peat, which, if ignited, will further damage the swamp and release more stored carbon.
But Twin Pines says that they will backfill Trail Ridge, so even if the water levels drop, it is only temporary, right?
Not necessarily. Trail Ridge is made of layers (see images in “What is Trail Ridge?”). When the ridge is backfilled, the resulting formation will no longer be layered, and no one knows what that will do to the structural integrity of formation. As mining is expected to go below the water table level, it may have a permanent impact on the Okefenokee’s ability to maintain its water level.

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.
Another other science issues with the Twin Pines Report?
Heavy metal mining projects result in the creation of by-products that contain heavy metals and can affect the quality of groundwater, compromising its safety for human consumption and negatively impacting local ecosystems.

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.
What economic benefit does the Okefenokee provide?
The Okefenokee provides contributions to the local economies via recreation and tourism.

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.
What revenue would the Twin Pines’ mining project generate?
Twin Pines calculates that over the 20-year project, it will double Charlton County, GA’s tax base (generating about $4.3M a year in tax revenue), employ 400 full-time workers at above average income for the area, and create other jobs and improve the local economy via a trickledown effect.
What are they mining at Trail Ridge?
The mine is for titanium dioxide.
Titanium is a component in aerospace and defense applications; however, over 95% of domestic consumption is for titanium dioxide, a bright-white pigment used in consumer products, mainly paint.
A working group concluded that domestic titanium production is not vital for national security purposes.

Take Action

Please write the Georgia Environmental Protection Division your comments on this proposed mine.

Updated on July 19, 2021

Article Attachments

Was this article helpful?

Related Articles

Can’t find the answer you’re looking for?
Don't worry—we're here to help!
Ask a Scientist

Leave a Comment