By Nastassia V. Patin, Nicole M. Baran
Every year, half a million people visit the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Florida-Georgia border to paddle through the peaceful waterways. The 438,000-acre federally protected swamp is home to more than 200 varieties of birds and 60 kinds of reptiles. Alligators cruise through the water and lounge on the banks for canoers to safely observe. Several threatened species like the gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snake call the refuge home.
In the spring of 2018, we were part of the annual tourist influx. Thanks to Okefenokee Adventures, one of several local businesses served by swamp tourism, our group paddled among the cypress trees and lilies, and slept on raised platforms surrounded by gators, owls, and a complete absence of human activity. It was truly one of the most unique experiences of our lives and we left the swamp with a profound appreciation for this unique ecosystem. However, future Georgians may not have the same opportunity we did. Everything that makes the Okefenokee special is threatened by a recent proposal to mine the surrounding area.
Earlier this year, Twin Pines Minerals proposed a mining operation on Trail Ridge, a geological feature situated about 4 miles from the Okefenokee. The Alabama-based company hopes to extract titanium, a mineral used in a wide range of industrial and commercial products including paint and cosmetics. This is the same site that DuPont proposed mining twenty years ago; that project was defeated after opposition from local residents and environmental groups. Today, the same concerns about potential impacts to water quality, ecosystem health, and economic integrity are motivating people to speak up against the mining proposal.
The Okefenokee Swamp is not just a place to observe alligators and birds in their natural, undisturbed habitat. It also plays an important role in buffering storm impacts and fighting climate change. It is an enormous peat bog, one of the most valuable ecosystems on earth. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, peatlands “are critical for preserving global biodiversity, provide safe drinking water, minimize flood risk and help address climate change.” A full 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of draining peatlands, so this mining operation could substantially contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. It would also put at risk our ability to manage and respond to the worst effects of climate change, including worsening storms, increased flooding, and prolonged drought. Peat bogs like the Okefenokee help minimize the risk of flooding and drought by regulating water flows.
And, of course, the Okefenokee and Trail Ridge are home to several protected species that could be impacted by the proposed work. These include species that are federally threatened or endangered (like the indigo snake and red-cockaded woodpecker) and many other species (like the gopher tortoise and gopher frog) that have declined substantially and are currently being evaluated for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Much of these species’ native habitat in the Southeast has already been lost to agriculture, mining, and other development, so protecting remaining patches of quality habitat, like the Trail Ridge area, is essential for reversing declines and helping species persist.
The mining proposal has already raised concerns with the Environmental Protection Agency, which suggested the plan lacked important details about the potential impacts on groundwater. Twin Pines proposes using earth-moving machines to scoop 50,000 square foot areas at a depth of 50 feet to extract minerals before redepositing the soil. The extraction process, as well as the equipment and infrastructure that would need to be erected, could deposit toxic chemicals into the waterways and reduce the ground water level, both of which would irreparably damage the Okefenokee. As the EPA stated in a redacted memo: “Should impacts occur they may not be able to be reversed, repaired or mitigated.” Moreover, any benefit to the local economy, like jobs created, would be temporary and unlikely to outweigh the estimated $4 billion in ecosystem services provided by the Okefenokee.
Before moving forward with their application, it is absolutely critical that Twin Pines be forthright about all the proposed mining activities and their potential impacts. Furthermore, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division both play important roles in evaluating the environmental impacts of mining and inform the public of all risks involved. These groups should be pressured to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, the highest possible level of analysis for federal approval of such a project. We urge concerned citizens to make their voices heard by contacting the Army Corps of Engineers through the online form provided below before September 12.
The United States has already lost well over half of its wetlands to development. Preserving the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the most important and fragile ecosystems in the state of Georgia, and indeed the United States, should be a top priority for state and federal agencies. Swamps often get a bad rap as dangerous, bug-infested places that are best avoided. Our experience last spring changed our view of swamps forever and inspired us to learn more about their important environmental and economic roles. We urge everyone to visit the Okefenokee and have no doubt all who do will be inspired to fight for its protection.
Visit bit.ly/ProtectTheOkefenokee to submit a comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ask them to deny Twin Pines’ permit application. You may also submit comments by mail to: Commander, US Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah Division, Attention: Ms. Holly Ross, 1104 North Westover Boulevard, Suite 9, Albany, GA 31707 or by email to email@example.com.