YARBROUGH COLUMN: Do our politicians and bureaucrats really care about protecting Okefenokee?

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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Between the time I write this and you read this, conditions can change. Particularly in politics. But as of this writing, there seems to be little doubt that an Alabama mining company will get permission from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (an oxymoron) to begin extractions of minerals from the Okefenokee Swamp.

Correction: It is not “the” Okefenokee Swamp. It is “our” Okefenokee Swamp. A 400,000-acre Georgia treasure, which is currently under consideration by the U.S. Department of the Interior to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which includes such sites the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Everglades National Parks, Carlsbad Caverns and the Statue of Liberty.

Tell that to Twin Pines Minerals. The company, which seems to have adopted William Henry Vanderbilt’s “the public be damned” attitude, has applied for permits on 582 acres of wetlands it owns three miles from the swamp to strip mine zirconium and titanium dioxide, ingredients used in sunscreens, cosmetics, paints, foods and toothpaste whitener. Nice stuff to have but is there not any other place on earth available to mine the stuff than in the Okefenokee? Evidently not to Twin Pines.

On their website, the company references studies that have been done to ensure that no harm comes to the Okefenokee (refuted by other studies) and the positive economic impact the project will have on Charlton County, where much of the swamp is located. Not surprisingly, the board of commissioners in Charlton County has endorsed the Twin Pines project.

At this point, I can’t help but think of Monkeygate, the ill-fated attempt to establish a monkey-breeding center in Decatur County, which would have housed 30,000 long tailed macaques and was endorsed by every governmental body in the county along with the local development authority and school board, but not the local citizens who raised such a fuss the idea was dropped.

There is a lot of opposition to the Twin Pines project. A petition signed by more than 500 residents of four counties in the swamp’s vicinity — Charlton, Glynn, Wayne and Ware — appeals to legislators and state officials to “take every possible measure to ensure the long-term protection of the Okefenokee Swamp.”

At a virtual public hearing a couple of weeks ago, nearly 100 participants spoke against the company’s plan to strip mine at the wetland’s edge. None spoke in favor of the project.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has weighed in, telling Georgia state regulators that any decision regarding the proposed mining permit must be made “with consideration of federal reserved water rights” and that disruption to the natural flow of groundwater in this interconnected system could have “far-reaching consequences for both the Refuge and surrounding areas.”

Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff has pressed state officials to intervene. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp, urging the state to deny the permits.

The response from the state has been underwhelming, leaving me to think the skids are greased to approve the deal, no matter what the opposition. The state Environmental Protection Division (there’s that oxymoron, again) says their own analysis “concluded that water level in the swamp will be minimally impacted” and issued draft permits for the mining project Feb. 9, starting a 60-day period for public comments before regulators work up final permits for the agency’s director, Jeff Cown, to approve.

The Legislature seems inclined to do nothing. I guess making cornbread our state bread has taken precedence. HB 1338 sponsored by Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), whose district includes the Okefenokee, would give EPD more time to analyze impacts to the swamp. But the legislation included no specific requirements for data collection and never got out of committee.

Opponents blasted the bill. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed “significant concerns” about some of the provisions. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Corbett’s campaign finance disclosures show he has received $2,250 in donations from Twin Pines since October 2021 and $3,750 from the company’s president, Steve Ingle, since October 2022.

Whether the public can derail this project as they did with Monkeygate is uncertain at this point. What is certain is that the ham-handed and tone-deaf Twin Pines crowd may win this battle, but they are going to lose in the court of public opinion (assuming they care, which I seriously doubt.) That renowned resident of Okefenokee, Pogo the Possum, once observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Not this time, Pogo. It is them. Twin Pines Mining LLC.