Twin Pines Mining Company has proposed to mine Trail Ridge, the ridge of land adjacent to the Okefenokee Swamp and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Mining along Trail Ridge will destroy habitat, release heavy metals into the surrounding water supply, create a fire hazard, and endanger the overall ecosystem.
Read on to learn about the controversy over the mine and impacts on the swamp.
The Okefenokee Swamp is 438,000 acres, the largest blackwater swamp in North America, the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern U.S, and one of the only self-contained wetlands in the world that is naturally functioning. The site has never been compromised by development or agricultural use and remains as one of the nation’s few untouched ecosystems.
The Okefenokee is rich in biological diversity, and home to over 2,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and plants. Mining along the trail ridge could compromise the habitat the swamp offers all species, including the endangered gopher tortoises, round-tailed muskrat, red-cockaded woodpeckers, wood storks, and eastern indigo snakes.
How will mining impact the environment of the swamp?
It is known that mining Trail Ridge will cause at minimum a temporary water loss in the Okefenokee Swamp. Trail Ridge acts as an earthen dam that creates the swamp itself. It does this by redirecting surface water drainage and slowing surficial groundwater movement, creating a backwater effect.
There are conflicting reports around the potential short-term and long-term environmental impact of the mine. Twin Pine’s scientists disagree with those from US Fish and Wildlife Service and many years of peer-reviewed research. The science community in Georgia published an open letter about the extent of the temporary and permanent change to the Okefenokee.
Digging up Trail Ridge and then replacing it post mining will mix the existing layered sands, clays, and organic matter. This makes Trail Ridge more porous and thus more conductive to water, lessening its ability to hold water. This will alter groundwater flows through Trail Ridge and possibly lead to permanently lower water levels in the Swamp, depending on the spatial extent of such modification. The leakage through the modified Trail Ridge means that water pumped by the mining activity will largely derive from the Okefenokee Swamp.
The mining permit proposes to pump 1.44 million of gallons per day (MGD) of groundwater, which is the approximately daily need of a town of 19,000 people. This is projected to cause the water table in the Floridan Aquifer underlying the swamp to lower by as much as 9 feet. One-year post-pumping, the aquifer under the swamp will still be 1.3 feet lower than pre-pumping levels. This aquifer drawdown will create a downward hydraulic gradient from the Swamp and will cause a drop in Swamp water levels as a result.
Mining will directly destroy wetlands and intermittent streams on Trail Ridge. Lowered water levels cause the following environmental issues:
- Mining will impact the water quality of the Okefenokee Swamp and downstream rivers, including the St Mary’s and Suwannee Rivers, through release of stored chemicals, including toxic heavy metals.
- Mining will increase fire risk to both the swamp and nearby private property, including timber and blueberry farms.
- Mining will destroy the habitat of threatened and endangered species including gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, round-tailed muskrat, red-cockaded woodpecker, and possibly flatwoods salamanders, and habitat with the Swamp ecosystem.
How will mining impact the Economy of the swamp?
Mining the Okefenokee Swamp threatens the economies of surrounding communities. The location of the mining operation in such proximity to the swamp will degrade the wilderness and dark sky experience, which are major draws for the 600,000+ annual visitors.
This will diminish the swamps economic benefit for Southeast Georgia, threatening the $17.2 million gained in employment, $5.4 million in total tax revenue for local counties, and $65 million in tourism.
Local cities of Homeland, Kingsland, St Mary’s, Waycross/Ware County, and Valdosta, have passed resolutions asking state officials to do everything possible to protect the Okefenokee and their communities’ livelihoods.
Overview of Conflicting Evidence
What does Twin Pines say?
At the request of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Twin Pines produced an Impact Report on Jan 14, 2020. This report has less stringent guidelines then an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which is not required due to the size of the mine.
This report states that there will be minimal impact on the surrounding area and that any change to water levels will be minimal and temporary. Hydrology models were provided as evidence for these claims.
What did the US Fish and Wildlife Service Say?
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) disagrees with the Twin Pines Impact Report.
In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USFWS stated that, “…we have concerns that the proposed project may pose risks to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (OKENWR) and the natural environment due to location associated activities, and cumulative effects of similar projects in the area.”
Major issues cited in the letter include the erosion of Trail Ridge as the eastern barrier of the swamp, demonstration mining would be shallower than future mining and might not reflect full future impacts, and Twin Pines’ use of an outdated hydrogeology model.
It is important to note that this proposal is for a “demonstration mine” and that Twin Pines plans to continue mining after this initial ask. Given the complexity of the water system and geology in and around the Okefenokee Swamp, this plan cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather as the start of a larger operation.
Importantly, a majority of the established research supports the claims that mining close to the swamp has a high likelihood of causing permanent damage to the swamp and surrounding areas. Until the science proves otherwise, we are opposed to mining in the vicinity of the Okefenokee Swamp
1. Write your legislator about HB 1289 which would ban mining near the Okefenokee
2. Write the Georgia Environmental Protection Division your comments on this proposed mine.
Okefenokee Science FAQ
The Okefenokee Swamp is a swamp comprised of peat and wetlands mainly in Clinch, Ware, and Charlton counties in Georgia and Baker County in Florida. It is about 438,000 acres and protected mainly by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Okefenokee Wilderness. It has been protected by the federal government since 1937, has been named a Wetland of International Importance, designated as a National Natural Landmark, and is listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Suwanee River and the St Mary’s River originate in the swamp. The eastern border of the Okefenokee Swamp is Trail Ridge, a geological formation that acts as a dam for the swamp water.
Image source: Tim Ross.
Wetlands serve as flood control, wildlife nurseries, and water filters. They are important part of the ecosystem.
Image From US Fish and Wildlife
Endangered species that rely on the swamp include wood storks, eastern indigo snakes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The below picture shows that HMS are stacked in layers like pancakes.
Photo and caption from https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2018/5045/sir20185045.pdf
HMS are a source of Titanium. Titanium is a component in aerospace and defense applications; however, over 95% of domestic consumption is for titanium dioxide, a pigment used in consumer products, mainly paint.
Total Acres – 2414
Acres to Mine – 1300
Maximum Depth – 70ft
Acres mines per month – 25-40
Total Acres – 1042
Acres to Mine – 898
Maximum Depth – 25-50ft
Acres per month – 8
If this is the case, mining of Trial Ridge would not destroy a barrier that creates the swamp and have only minimal impact or no impact on the water level in the Okefenokee Swamp.
The USFWS disagrees with this assessment. The evidence submitted to support this claim is not adequate and it has not been confirmed and/or peer-reviewed by other scientists. USFWS instead believes that if Trail Ridge is changed, water will flow out from the swamp in the west, and into the lower lying land in the east. The above picture on the right shows this theory.
The Twin Pine’s claim of temporary impact has not been validated or peer reviewed, and several studies indicate that the changes may cause the ecosystem to be unable to recover or sustain itself.
A study on the impact of oil sands mining in Alberta, Canada showed a significant release of carbon, and demonstrated over 50% permanent wetland loss. While Canada is a long way from Georgia, this study does indicate that there would be a release of stored carbon (which would happen immediately) and that restoring an ecosystem is a complex process.
According to a 30-year-career hydrologist, the impact report Twin Pines produced was missing several key pieces of information relating to the disposal of heavy-metal byproducts, withdrawing water from the Upper Floridian Aquifer, and induced recharge to shallow aquifers.
Twin Pines has not included contaminant transport or disposal information in their hydrogeology model. Twin Pines’ impact report includes scant detail about the properties of the Hawthorn Group, a ground layer the protects and confines water to the Upper Floridian aquifer. Mining could erode this protective layer and cause detrimental leakage of water from the aquifer. Twin Pines also failed to address the impact that induced, artificial recharging of an aquifer instead of natural recharge via precipitation would have on the OKE Swamp.
Additionally, around 22,000 comments were submitted to the EPD, voicing concern over the mine in response to the pending permit.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge entertains approximately 600,000 visitors each year, bringing business to the surrounding towns of St. Marys, Woodbine, and Kingsland. Non-residents account for $59.8 million of the total $64.7 million in recreational expenditures accrued by the four surrounding counties. The Okefenokee has created around 753 jobs, generating $17.2 million in employment income and $5.4 million worth of tax revenue.
Titanium is a component in aerospace and defense applications; however, over 95% of domestic consumption is for titanium dioxide, a bright-white pigment used in consumer products, mainly paint.
A working group concluded that domestic titanium production is not vital for national security purposes.
Please write your legislator about HB 1289 which would protect the swamp from this and future mines. Please write the Georgia Environmental Protection Division your comments on this proposed mine.
Watch a quick video about the science:
Watching this amazing, professional, Science Tales and Trails Video.
NOTE: this articles was updated on Jan 20, 2022 to reflect updates to the legal situation and known science.