In today’s political climate, the public rarely seems to agree on anything, with consensus often precluded by partisan divisions. For the State of Georgia, however, there is at least one constant that has inspired common-sense agreement for decades: the protection of the Okefenokee Swamp, the largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi, and Georgia’s most prized natural asset.
While virtually the entire Okefenokee itself is protected, along its eastern edge lies the Trail Ridge, an ancient sand dune that sustains the swamp. In the 1990s, DuPont set its sights on mining the Trail Ridge’s mineral sands, igniting a years-long conflict, the reverberations of which are still felt today.
DuPont assured the public it “would do everything necessary to protect” what it called a “natural treasure.” From the outset, DuPont claimed to foster an “open and honest dialogue.” Studies were conducted, assurances given, promises made. The swamp would be impacted, DuPont conceded, but such impacts would be nearly unmeasurable.
The public didn’t buy it. Opponents of the time were not against mining per se, but the dangerous location of the project. “You go messing with Trail Ridge,” said a state biologist, “and you’re messing with the life of the Okefenokee.”
“If it goes,” said a local opponent, “it can never be replaced. Its loss is a loss forever.”
Said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) refuge manager of the time, “people come here to step out of the daily drill of ringing phones and honking cars. They come here to step back, if you will, to a more primitive place.”
Operations would run 24-hours a day, according to FWS, putting a glow in the sky where darkness prevailed. Dust, smoke, soot and fumes would also move onto the refuge.
A local questioned whether, once DuPont closed shop, anyone would remember the Okefenokee wilderness in 2052.
For years, the Georgia public rallied against the project. Eventually, political figures took notice and intervened in a manner befitting of the swamp.
Before a local audience, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt declared mining an “incompatible” neighbor to the swamp. “You can study this, you can write all the documents in the world, but they’re not going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there will be no impacts on the Okefenokee Swamp. That’s just not the nature of these hydrogeological connections.” DuPont’s studies “can’t possibly yield a conclusion which will be satisfactory to me.”
FWS expressed similar sentiments. “The water table of the Okefenokee is above the deepest depth of the mining operation. We do not know if groundwater will be seeping into or out of it. Any changes in water depth changes everything in the swamp—the plants, the animals, the tourists. Either way, it will have a serious impact.”
FWS declared the project to be “one of the biggest threats the (swamp) has ever faced.”
After flying over the Okefenokee, members of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources reached the same conclusion. In their estimation, mining on the Trail Ridge constituted a “very serious threat,” and that such mining “would not be in the best interest of the Okefenokee Swamp.” Pending clear and convincing evidence otherwise, the board came to oppose all such operations.
Governor Zell Miller publicly opposed the project, as did U.S. Senator Max Cleland. Virtually all levels of government drew an unequivocal line in the sand. The DuPont project was the wrong mine, in the wrong place.
DuPont convened stakeholder meetings in a last ditch effort, but ultimately recognized the futility of its effort, abandoned its project, and donated much of the land. A resulting No-Mine Agreement foreclosed the future threat of mining.
Or so it was thought.
Fifteen years would pass before Twin Pines Minerals, an Alabama-based company, set out to mine what DuPont couldn’t, on a tract just south of that proposed in the 90s. Armed with the same platitudes and assurances used by DuPont, Twin Pines has tried to assuage public concern, but with little success.
With the memory of DuPont still front of mind, the people of Georgia have galvanized against the project in a manner unseen in decades, if ever:
- Over 100,000 comments have been submitted, with 60,000 sent to state regulators, a record for the state.
- 45 scientists jointly warned of the dangers of this project.
- Over 100 faith leaders called on Georgia to protect the Okefenokee, “a uniquely holy and sacred space.”
- Two former cabinet members, including Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, and Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson; three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directors; and two commissioners of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, among others, expressed their opposition.
- Numerous counties and cities, including Ware County, Kingsland, St. Marys, Valdosta and Waycross have passed resolutions either expressing concerns with the project or their support for the Okefenokee
- Chemours, a mining spinoff of DuPont, said it has no plans to buy the project. Another corporate giant, TIAA, said it would not support mining ventures on its property.
- Senator Ossoff, Senator Warnock and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have repeatedly expressed misgivings with the project, noting its potential to permanently compromise the swamp.
- And state legislators, republicans and democrats alike, recently introduced legislation prohibiting the future issuance of mining permits on the Trail Ridge.
While the details have changed, the larger threat has not. The Twin Pines property abuts Swamp Perimeter Road and comes within 400-feet of the swamp itself. In time, draglines and bulldozers would grind within a stone’s throw of the Okefenokee, blighting and potentially undermining forever a world-class attraction.
Twin Pines currently has permits pending with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. While EPD did not have to make a permit decision during the DuPont fight, they must do so this time around.
Shortly before the Georgia Board of Natural Resources expressed its opposition, David Word, deputy director of EPD, told the Board that DuPont could damage the Okefenokee. “This is a very, very serious issue,” Ward cautioned.
And so it remains today.
You can encourage EPD to carry on a storied tradition, rooted in common sense and bipartisan support, by simply rejecting the project permits at TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov.