Plans for mine near Georgia wildlife refuge proceed, environmentalists call it a 'death warrant'

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A company's scheme to excavation minerals adjacent nan separator of nan Okefenokee Swamp and its federally protected wildlife refuge neared last support Friday arsenic Georgia regulators released draught permits for nan project, which opponents opportunity could irreparably harm a earthy treasure.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division said it will return nationalist comments connected nan draught permits for 30 days earlier moving up last versions to nonstop to nan agency's head for approval.

Twin Pines Minerals of Birmingham, Alabama, has worked since 2019 to get authorities permits to excavation titanium dioxide little than 3 miles from nan southeastern bound of nan Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, nan largest U.S. refuge eastbound of nan Mississippi River.

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Federal scientists person warned that mining adjacent nan Okefenokee’s bowl-like rim could harm nan swamp’s expertise to clasp water. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland successful 2022 declared nan projected excavation poses an "unacceptable risk" to nan vulnerable ecosystem astatine nan Georgia-Florida line.

"This is simply a acheronian time successful Georgia’s history," said Josh Marks, an Atlanta biology lawyer and leader of nan group Georgians for nan Okefenokee. "EPD whitethorn person signed a decease warrant for nan Okefenokee Swamp, our state’s top earthy treasure."

In documents released Friday, authorities regulators echoed past comments that their study shows nan projected 773-acre excavation won't importantly harm nan Okefenokee aliases little its h2o levels.

"EPD’s models show that nan excavation should person a minimal impact" connected nan Okefenokee refuge, nan agency said, "even during drought periods."

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle applauded regulators' determination to move guardant aft what he called a "thorough information of our application."

Ingle has insisted for years that his institution tin excavation without hurting nan Okefenokee.

"We expect stringent authorities oversight of our mining-to-reclamation project, which will beryllium afloat protective of nan Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge and nan region’s environment," Ingle said successful a statement.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers astir 630 quadrate miles successful southeast Georgia and is location to alligators, bald eagles and different protected species. The swamp’s wildlife, cypress forests and flooded prairies tie astir 600,000 visitors each year, according to nan U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages nan refuge.

In February 2019, nan Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that nan projected excavation could airs "substantial risks" to nan swamp, including its expertise to clasp water. Some impacts, it said, "may not beryllium capable to beryllium reversed, repaired, aliases mitigated for."

C. Rhett Jackson, a hydrology professor astatine nan University of Georgia, warned authorities regulators successful a written study that nan mining pits planned by Twin Pines would siphon disconnected capable groundwater to triple nan wave and long of terrible droughts successful nan swamp’s southeast corner.

Georgia regulators person an outsized domiciled successful deciding whether to o.k. nan excavation because nan U.S. government, which usually considers biology permits successful tandem pinch authorities agencies, relinquished oversight of nan Twin Pines project.

The Army Corps of Engineers was reviewing a national licence for Twin Pines erstwhile nan agency declared successful 2020 that it nary longer had jurisdiction authority because of regulatory rollbacks nether then-President Donald Trump. Despite efforts by President Joe Biden to reconstruct national oversight, nan Army Corps entered a ineligible statement pinch Twin Pines to support its hands-off position.

The mining task is moving guardant arsenic nan National Park Service seeks nickname of nan Okefenokee wildlife refuge arsenic a UNESCO World Heritage site. Conservation groups opportunity nan uncommon favoritism would boost nan Okefenokee’s floor plan arsenic 1 of nan world’s past intact blackwater swamps and location to much than 400 animal species.

The draught permits were released hardly 2 weeks aft Twin Pines agreed to salary a $20,000 good ordered by Georgia regulators, who said nan institution violated authorities laws while collecting ungraded samples for its licence application.

Twin Pines denied wrongdoing, but said it agreed to nan good to debar further permitting delays.

"It is inconceivable to anyone who really values Georgia’s situation to declare that this excavation will not harm nan critically important wetlands and wildlife of nan Okefenokee ecosystem," Ben Prater, southeast head for nan group Defenders of Wildlife, said successful a statement. He added: EPD has 1 job. It must contradict nan permits."

Some House lawmakers In the Georgia legislature are again pushing a measure that would prohibition early mining extracurricular nan Okefenokee. The connection sewage a proceeding past year, but has stalled successful a House committee. While nan measurement wouldn’t extremity Twin Pines from obtaining permits already pending, it would prohibit description of nan company’s mining cognition if it became law.