A large coalition of environmental organizations is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop a company from mining near the Okefenokee Swamp, joining more than 20,000 people who chimed in by the deadline last week to comment.
Just prior to the deadline for public comments, 16 conservation groups sent the Corps a 73-page letter opposing the Twin Pines’ application to conduct strip mining in South Georgia.
The letter calls for the Corps to require an environmental impact study, which could significantly delay the project beyond Twin Pines’ planned spring 2020 start.
The letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center and Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups criticizes Twin Pines for not releasing more details about how mining would impact the Okefenoke and its surrounding ecosystem.
The letter is co-signed by 14 other conservation organizations including the Sierra Club, Environment Georgia, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch, as well as the statewide riverkeeper organization and some of its chapters.
It counts as one of 20,500 public comments the Corps received from July 12 until the Sept. 12 deadline. That number of comments about the mine dwarfs the most comments ever received on other Corps projects for the Savannah district.
Twin Pines is asking the Corps for a permit to mine 2,414 acres and the company is contemplating digging in 12,000 acres near the refuge.
The coalition letter accuses Twin Pines of misrepresenting how quickly it can replace the soil as it completes the project in sections. The company needs to perform more extensive surveys of the land and be able to prove that strip mining for titanium dioxide won’t lower the swamp’s water level, the letter says.
The letter writers echo concerns raised in a February U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service memo that says mining in the area risks damaging the habitats for threatened gopher tortoises.
“Given what is already known, Twin Pines has not and cannot show that the proposed project will not have an unacceptable impact,” said Bill Sapp, SELC senior attorney, in an email to the Georgia Recorder last week. “If the Corps is not willing to do that, it should, at a minimum require Twin Pines to do an environmental impact statement to ensure that very real risks to one of the world’s most unique ecosystems are not overlooked.”
Twin Pines’ consultants say their studies collected an “unprecedented amount” of geological and hydrologic information about the proposed mining site. They say once the mining operation is wrapped up, the soil will be restored and the strip-mined area will heal.
A Twin Pines representative said the study is still a work in progress and not available for public review.
The Georgia Conservancy also submitted a comment Aug. 29 listing its concerns about how the swamp’s water level and Trail Ridge wetlands will be damaged by changes to groundwater flow that occur during the mining.
Many of the 20,500 comments came from individuals not affiliated with environmental groups.
For example, Henry Schneider of Warner Robins told the Corps he’s not buying Twin Pines’ science that says the ecosystem will return to normal.
“All they are really promising is that they will dig a big hole and then randomly refill it,” Schneider said in his filing. “This does nothing to address hydrology and certainly could ruin hydrology. Plus, if the swamp is destroyed, refilling the mine will do nothing to reinstate it.”
Many submissions were form letters from across the country. Sixty students from Veterans Memorial Middle School students in Columbus also wrote, said Billy Birdwell, Corps spokesman.
Twin Pines plans are receiving the most public scrutiny about a mining proposal near the Okefenokee refuge since DuPont’s proposal to mine 38,000 acres in the 1990s were squashed.
The Corps has not set a deadline when a decision on the permit will be made. Despite the large number of comments, the Corps decision will be based on the merits of the Twin Pines plan.
“The purpose of the public comment period is to obtain information we could not or did not obtain by other means,” Birdwell said in an email. “It assures the public they had an opportunity to give us all the pertinent information we need to make the right decision.”
The 20,500 comments far outstrips the last Corps project in the Savannah district that generated controversy, the heavily scrutinized Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. Only a few hundred people and organizations filed public comments while the dredging plan was reviewed about a decade ago.
Stanley Dunlap is a reporter with Georgia Recorder. The Georgia Recorder is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on connecting public policies to the stories of the people and communities affected by them.