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Opinion | We Can Still Save the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

BusinessOpinion | We Can Still Save the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

One of the hardest things to reconcile about living in the American South is how this region of extraordinary natural beauty, this still wild place of irreplaceable biodiversity, is mostly in the hands of politicians who will gladly sell it to the highest bidder. It’s hard to reconcile how even land that’s ostensibly protected is never truly safe. And how state regulators charged with protecting it will often look the other way when the highest bidder violates the state’s own environmental regulations.

An egregious example of this pattern is unfolding in Georgia, where state officials are poised to approve a strip mine on the southeastern edge of the magnificent Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

At 407,000 acres, the Okefenokee is the largest ecologically intact blackwater swamp in North America and the largest National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi River. It hosts or shelters a huge range of plant and animal life, including endangered and threatened species. It is a crucial way station for migratory birds. Designated a wetland of international importance under the RAMSAR Convention of 1971, it sequesters an immense amount of carbon in the form of peat.

The proposed mine poses a profound risk to the swamp. Trail Ridge, the site where Twin Pines Minerals will begin operations, is a geological formation that functions as a low earthen dam holding the waters of the Okefenokee in place. The mine would remove the topsoil, dig out the sand pits, separate the titanium from the sand and then return sand and soil to some approximation of their original place. To manage all this, Twin Pines would need to pump 1.4 million gallons of groundwater a day from the aquifer that serves the Okefenokee.

It doesn’t sound too bad, I guess, unless you know that this destroy-extract-replace plan is effectively mountaintop-removal mining transferred to the watery lowlands. There is no restoring an ecosystem after an assault like that. Aquatic plants and animals die off if waterways become clogged with silt. Drinking water can be contaminated by heavy metals. Ancient land formations and the habitats they underpin are lost forever. The living soil is left barren.

As a species, we have never let ecological necessity get in the way of something we think we need from the land. Thing is, we don’t need this mine. Titanium dioxide is used primarily as pigment in a range of products, including paint and toothpaste. It is not difficult to find in less environmentally sensitive areas.

Twin Pines, an Alabama company, claims that its proposed mine would bring hundreds of much-needed jobs to an economically depressed part of the state. It does not say how much income would be lost if the mine depresses tourism to this ethereal place, which each year attracts more than 800,000 visitors who spend some $91.5 million while they’re there. Okefenokee tourism “supports 750 jobs, $79 million in economic output and $11.1 million in annual tax revenue in the area,” notes an analysis by the Conservation Fund.

Even by a purely human measure, in other words, there is no compelling reason for Georgia to allow mining on a fragile ridge of land less than three miles from the Okefenokee Swamp.

By environmental measures, of course, setting up a strip mine anywhere near this wildlife sanctuary should be flat-out illegal. Arguably, it already is. Hydrologists at the National Park Service last year found “critical shortcomings” in the model Twin Pines used to demonstrate the safety of its plan — a model that “obfuscates the true impacts from mining on the refuge.”

It’s important to note that this is not a battle between the people of Georgia and some out-of-state environmental organizations that don’t understand the dynamics of rural poverty. The people of Georgia treasure the Okefenokee. When I wrote about this risk to the swamp last year, the first period of public comment was coming to a close, and sentiment was already clear: 69 percent of Georgians supported permanently protecting the swamp from development, and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division received more than 200,000 public responses opposing the mine.

What the people of Georgia know — which Georgia environmental regulators refuse to acknowledge — is that we should react as fiercely to the idea of a mine on the edge of the Okefenokee as we would to “any action that jeopardizes the integrity of something like Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon,” Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. Instead of handing it over to some out-of-state company to profit from, Georgia officials ought to be protecting this swamp with every tool they have at hand.

Nevertheless, on Feb. 9, just days after I wrote an essay about the danger to American wetlands in general and to the Okefenokee in particular, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division — don’t even get me started on the irony — issued draft permits for the mine.

Here’s another irony for you, courtesy of reporting by The Associated Press’s Russ Bynum: “The draft permits were released barely two weeks after Twin Pines agreed to pay a $20,000 fine ordered by Georgia regulators, who said the company violated state laws while collecting soil samples for its permit application.” To put this sequence of events another way, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division gave the company a slap on the wrist and then threw it a parade.

How is it even possible that state regulators are on the cusp of approving an unnecessary mine on the boundary of a desperately needed federal wildlife sanctuary? A mine that the state’s own citizens, along with a bipartisan majority of its lawmakers, so vehemently oppose? In a comprehensive report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Drew Kann lays out the role that lobbying efforts and campaign donations — and a devastating rollback of environmental protections during Donald Trump’s presidency — have played in leaving the Okefenokee so vulnerable.

When Georgia regulators issued the draft permits for the mine, they also allowed 60 days for the public to comment. After April 9, the final permits could be issued, and Twin Pines could begin operations. In the meantime, efforts to defeat the mine have shifted into an even higher gear.

The National Park Service has nominated the Okefenokee refuge as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a distinction that, if granted, would bring additional visitors to the area — and additional scrutiny to Georgia’s management of the swamp.

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have informed Georgia regulators that the agency is formally asserting federal rights over waters that affect the Okefenokee. “Disruption to the natural flow of groundwater in this interconnected system could have far-reaching consequences for both the refuge and surrounding areas,” wrote Mike Oetker, the acting Southeast regional director of the agency.

A new bill before the Georgia House of Representatives — which the Georgia Conservancy supports — would call a moratorium on new permit applications for mineral mines using the method that Twin Pines plans to use at Trail Ridge. If passed by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia before the end of the legislative session on March 28, the new bill would effectively turn the first phase of the Twin Pines mine into a pilot site, preventing the company from expanding mining operations until scientists have had time to gather data and assess the mine’s impact on the swamp. The House is set to vote on Tuesday.

In a virtual public meeting attended by hundreds of people this month, commenters spoke for three hours in defense of the swamp. (No one spoke in favor of the mine.) “There’s just no sense in risking the national wildlife refuge just to make rich people richer by mining for an extremely nonessential mineral,” one local resident said.

There’s no sense in it at all. To build a mine on the edge of the Okefenokee would be to rob nearby Georgians of safe drinking water, to rob our wild neighbors of one of the few truly wild places we have left and to rob the world of an ecological treasure. The Okefenokee does not belong to Georgia. It belongs to the planet. It belongs to us. And we should all do everything in our power to save it.

To comment on the proposed mine by April 9, email TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov or send a letter to the Land Protection Branch, 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport Suite 104, Atlanta, GA 30354. It is not necessary to live in Georgia to comment.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.”

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