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About the Okefenokee Swamp and Proposed Mine

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.

Take Action

Write your legislator about HB 1289 which would ban mining near the Okefenokee

Background

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.

A cartoon illustration of (Left) The stratified layers of Trail Ridge and (Right) the mixed layers after backfill. This will change how Trail Ridge holds and directs waterflow.

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. 

The Okefenokee area and proposed mining site. From: https://protectokefenokee.org/resources/

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.

Recommendations

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

Take Action

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.

Share the below fact sheet and read our letter of opposition to Twin Pines Mine signed by 45 local scientists.

Okefenokee Science FAQ

What is the Okefenokee Swamp?
As a National Wildlife Refuge with a unique ecosystem, the Okefenokee Swamp is on a list to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a unique ecosystem that provides economic opportunities for the State of Georgia, is home to a diverse group of animal and plant species, many of whom are endangered, and holds importance for Native American tribes who have worked or lived on the land for generations
A picture of a kayak on the Okefenokee Image Source.

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.
Why is the Okefenokee Swamp Unique?
The Okefenokee Swamp is 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. Blackwater forms when slow flowing water essentially “seeps” vegetation in swamps and wetlands causing acidic water that resembles the color of tea.
Image of a blackwater creek. Shows the water looks like sweet tea.
Image source: Tim Ross.
What is important about peat and wetlands?
Peatlands are a carbon and heavy metal sink. When they are destroyed, they release the stored carbon, and also accumulated mercury, lead, and other metals. If these metals are released in large quantities, they may flow via the water into neighboring rivers and water supplies, and end up being absorbed by fish, wildlife, and/or crops. Mercury, lead, and other heavy metals are hazardous to human health, even in small quantities.

Wetlands serve as flood control, wildlife nurseries, and water filters. They are important part of the ecosystem.
What wildlife does the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge Have?
The swamp is home to 49 species of mammals, 233 species of birds, 64 species of reptiles, 39 species of fish, 37 species of amphibians, 1,000 moth species, and 600 plant species.
Bear in a treeImage From US Fish and Wildlife

Endangered species that rely on the swamp include wood storks, eastern indigo snakes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
What is the water system at the Okefenokee?
An aquafer is an underground area of porous material rock that contains water. Aquafers are sometimes used as water sources via wells. A surficial aquifer is one that is near the surface of the land. It contains continuously moving water which is fed by storms, runoff, and waterways and then discharged back into surrounding streams and waterways.  The area in and around the Okefenokee Swamp contains a surficial aquifer that feeds the Swamp and provides water to local waterways and wells.
What is Trail Ridge?
Trail Ridge, the eastern border of the Okefenokee Swamp is a narrow geological formation (1-2 km wide) that runs about 160km from Georgia into Florida. It is about 46-77m high, bordering the Okefenokee Swamp. In several places along Trail Ridge, there are formations of heavy mineral sands (HMS).

The below picture shows that HMS are stacked in layers like pancakes.

A cross section of Heavy Mineral Sands in layers. 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.
What is Strip Mining?
Strip mining involves stripping all vegetation and soil out of the ground and then removing the valuable minerals. Sometimes, the stripped soil is returned to the site of the mine in a process known as “backfilling,” which has been proposed for the Twin Pines mine.
What is the proposed Twin Pines Mine?
Twin Pines has purchased 12,000 acres along Trail Ridge.
 
1st Proposal
Total Acres – 2414
Acres to Mine – 1300
Maximum Depth – 70ft
Acres mines per month – 25-40

2nd Proposal
Total Acres – 1042
Acres to Mine – 898
Maximum Depth – 25-50ft
Acres per month – 8
What’s all the fuss about?
On the surface of Trail Ridge, if water falls on the east side of the ridge it flows to the east, and if it falls on the west side of the ridge it flows to the west. Twin Pines produced an Impact Report on Jan 14, 2020 that states that Trail Ridge is not a “dam” for the Okefenokee Swamp, but rather a hydraulic barrier to groundwater. This means that underground, the water flows just like it would above ground: east goes east, and west goes west. The below picture on the left shows this theory.

Comparison of Twin Pine's postulated water flow vs. US Fish & WIldlife Service.  Twin pines shows water splitting along the ridge, US Fish shows water flowing from higher to lower.
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.
What will happen to the Okefenokee if the water levels drop?
Any drop in water levels will release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere and the stored heavy metals into the water supply. Depending on how long the water level is lowered, the swamp may dry out and turn into a reservoir of flammable dried peat, which, if ignited, will further damage the swamp and release more stored carbon.
But Twin Pines says that they will backfill Trail Ridge, so even if the water levels drop, it is only temporary, right?
Not necessarily. Trail Ridge is made of layers (see images in “What is Trail Ridge?”). When the ridge is backfilled, the resulting formation will no longer be layered, and no one knows what that will do to the structural integrity of formation. As mining is expected to go below the water table level, it may have a permanent impact on the Okefenokee’s ability to maintain its water level.

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.
Another other science issues with the Twin Pines Report?
Heavy metal mining projects result in the creation of by-products that contain heavy metals and can affect the quality of groundwater, compromising its safety for human consumption and negatively impacting local ecosystems.

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.
What economic benefit does the Okefenokee provide?
The Okefenokee provides contributions to the local economies via recreation and tourism.

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.
What revenue would the Twin Pines’ mining project generate?
Twin Pines calculates that over the 20-year project, it will double Charlton County, GA’s tax base (generating about $4.3M a year in tax revenue), employ 400 full-time workers at above average income for the area, and create other jobs and improve the local economy via a trickledown effect.
What are they mining at Trail Ridge?
The mine is for titanium dioxide.
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.

Take Action

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.

Videos

Watch a quick video about the science:

OR

Watching this amazing, professional, Science Tales and Trails Video.

Read More

Open Letter from the Science Community about Proposed Mining Near the Okefenokee Swamp

Watch a Documentary about the Okefenokee Swamp

Watch a ST&T about the Okefenokee Swamp

Read what a 10 year old had to say about the proposed mine

NOTE: this articles was updated on Jan 20, 2022 to reflect updates to the legal situation and known science.

Updated on November 14, 2022

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