Supporters of mine near Okefenokee hint at lawsuit if Georgia lawmakers pass bill protecting swamp

Supporters of a plan to mine Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee Swamp say the local community sorely needs the economic boost. Defenders of the swamp argue it isn’t worth the risk.

The two sides battling in the nearly four-year saga over whether an Alabama company should be allowed to move forward with its plans to mine the site for titanium dioxide and zirconium were allowed to make their case to lawmakers during a two-hour public hearing held Tuesday. 

The hearing was on a bill sponsored by Thomasville Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor that would block future mining proposals at Trail Ridge near the largest blackwater swamp in North America.

But the focus turned often to Twin Pines Minerals’ pending permit application, with a company representative saying Taylor’s bill would stop the company from expanding or modifying the permit later.

The state Environmental Protection Division is accepting public comment on a key part of the proposal through next Monday. The demonstration mining project would take place along 580 acres that is located nearly three miles from the edge of the refuge.

“Any blanket prohibition of mining on Trail Ridge like those contained in HB 71 is a policy question left to the General Assembly,” EPD Director Rick Dunn said to lawmakers Tuesday.

Rep. Lynn Smith, a Newnan Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, listens to the public comments on a bill that would ban future mining applications on Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee Swamp. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The bill is not scheduled for a vote this session, which ends March 29, and has already missed a key legislative deadline for a measure to clear at least one chamber to have a smooth path to the governor’s desk this year. But it does remain alive for next year.

“I’m not going to rush something that’s controversial,” Rep. Lynn Smith, a Newnan Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.

As chair, Smith has control over which bills receive a vote in her committee, giving them a chance to move on to the gatekeeping Rules Committee. Supporters have said 91 state representatives have signed onto Taylor’s bill – which is the number of votes needed to pass a bill in the full House.

Smith said the number of signers on a bill is just “one of 1,000 things you look at” when evaluating a bill.

“I have never been rushed on an issue. If somebody pushes me, I slow down. It tells me something else is going on. And I want the committee to be informed – that’s my job,” she said. “You’ve got a process going on. These people need to be commenting on the EPD site.”

Taylor is trying to convince her colleagues, though, that the Okefenokee Swamp is so special that it deserves protections that would head off the kind of decimation seen in Florida Everglades. She sponsored a similar bill last year.

“Economic development is very important to any area. But industries come and go. Jobs come and go. But there’s only one Okefenokee,” Taylor said.

“Georgia has been entrusted with this. It’s up to us. I know we have a process that our EPD goes through, and our director even said it: We are part of that process. Don’t ever forget that. It’s up to us.”

Twin Pines backers say bill tramples company’s private property rights  

Bill supporters say the mining project could forever change the hydrology of the swamp and threaten its diverse ecology, which includes rare species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and indigo snake.

They also argue that allowing the project to go forward will hurt tourism, and they question whether it would be the local economic boon backers say it will be for an area with little industry. Company officials say the project will create 100 to 200 jobs.

The push to stop the mining project has received a boost from high-powered officials, including U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland who asked Gov. Brian Kemp to block the project and more recently U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.

But on Tuesday, lawmakers heard from those closest to the swamp, including Josh Howard, president of the Friends of the Okefenokee National Wildlife refuge and a Charlton County school administrator.

Visitors canoe along the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia near the Florida state line. Contributed by Joy Campbell

“I’m disappointed this bill was not allowed to move forward again this year,” Howard said. “I’m also bewildered that we’re having to fight so hard to get something that’s as unique and wonderful as the Okefenokee Swamp protected.

“This may come as a surprise, but there are many folks in Charlton County, residents, who are opposed to mining on Trail Ridge,” he said. “Only a few that stand to benefit personally and financially from the mine strongly support it. Those voices do not speak for the rest of us.”

But proponents of the Twin Pines proposal argued Taylor’s bill would thwart the project and trample on private property rights. They say the matter should be left to the EPD to decide whether the project can be done without harming the swamp.

“Thank you for caring about the Okefenokee Swamp. I care about as much or more than any of you. I just feel like both can coexist,” said Drew Jones, a Charlton County commissioner.

Rep. John Corbett, a Lake Park Republican, said the state should compensate the company if the bill is passed.

“It walks all over private property rights,” Corbett said. “It goes against every fiber in my being, and it should concern every one of y’all. Anyone who owns land, it should run up a red flag.”

But Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, countered that it would not constitute a violation of private property rights since the area would still be available to the property owner for economic uses like growing timber, farming and hunting.  

“It is also critical that we remember that all Georgians have property rights, which includes the right to enjoy our public lands unimpaired,” Sapp said.

Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines Minerals, did not attend Tuesday’s hearing and instead submitted a video statement. Attorney Lewis Jones appeared in his place, and he said differing theories about whether the bill amounts to an infringement on private property rights would “be tested in court.”

Jones also pushed back on claims that the minerals at the site are common and can be mined elsewhere, saying the minerals found at Twin Pines Minerals’ site are worth “billions.”

“By denying landowners the opportunity to prove that they can use this land and recover that value and do it safely by making a blanket prohibition instead of trusting the process that we have – that is a taking. It’s a taking of private property,” Jones said.

“Given the value at stake, this is a tremendous potential risk for the state of Georgia.” 

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