Titanium Mine Hearing Finds Not a Single Supporter

By Paula Alford

Not one supportive comment was heard on March 5, when more than 200 organizations and individuals testified in strong opposition to the draft air, groundwater and surface mining permits issued by Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), Georgia Natural Resources Department (GNR) to Twin Pines Minerals LLC (TPM).

The proposed mine, 2.9 miles from the border of the Okefenokee Swamp, and at the headwaters of the St. Marys River, could have a significant impact on both natural resources and all who take life from and live along it.

TPM proposes to build the demonstration mine on 577 acres (reduced from 898 to exclude 233 acres directly next to the ONWR). A new mining technique would be used, relying on a mobile dragline to excavate mineral sands from a small mine pit with a maximum depth of 50 feet.

To operate such a mine, the EPD draft permit allows for 1.440 million gallons of water per day or 783 gallons per minute to be withdrawn from the Florida aquifer. A few feet underground is the surficial aquifer, which is the divide between the Okefenokee Swamp and the St. Marys River.

The company says that water will be used primarily at the start of the mining process to fill “process water” ponds. Once mining begins, Twin Pines says the mine will withdraw little water from the aquifer and will not harm the swamp. Instead, the operation will use water stored in a set of massive “water management ponds” with a capacity of almost 150 million gallons.

In addition, the company states and demonstrates how the land would be restored to its original condition and proposes economic benefits to the area, providing 400 local jobs.

Titanium oxide is commonly used in solar cells and is a critical nanoceramic in the auto industry, as well as for pigments to increase opacity in a multitude of products. Presently, 91% of it is produced in China where far less regulation is involved in siting such a mine. Some titanium dioxide and sponge has been mined in Nevada, Utah, and Virginia. And given its use in defense and airline industry, an increased desire exists to have more produced domestically.

What could go wrong?

“Plenty!” according to the multitude of comments made at the three-and-a-half-hour virtual public hearing. Georgia EPD held tight control on the hearing, muting all in attendance, except those who signed in advance to speak or were in the queue at the end. Each person was permitted two minutes to speak.

The wide range of speakers, all opposed, addressed the devastating impact on water, air, land, environment, biology, agriculture, wildlife, spiritual heritage, family legacies, cultural resources, history, recreation, and tourism such a mine will have on the Okefenokee Swamp, the St. Marys River, and all surrounding areas

At the center of many comments was the impact on Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), the largest federal wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River and home to thousands of species, including 40 species of mammals, more than 200 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles, and more than 600 plant species. The refuge also holds millions of tons of peat deposits, keeping huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere.

Many also testified to the major impact on the St. Marys River, a blackwater river that runs 126 miles from the origin in the Okefenokee Swamp to its mouth between Cumberland Island, Georgia and Amelia Island, Florida. The watershed has more than 3,000 miles of streams and tributaries. Wetlands comprise more than 40% of its watershed.

Organizations opposed included: St. Marys Riverkeeper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Birds Georgia-Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Georgians for the Okefenokee Swamp, Conservation Board of Flycatchers International, Georgia Rivers Network, Southern Environmental Law Center, Friends of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra’s Club Committee to Protect the ONWR, the Center for Biological Diversity, and others.

A majority of comments were directed at the inadequate assessment of the environmental impact on the Okefenokee Swamp and St. Marys River from withdrawing such vast amounts of water from Florida aquifer.

For Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island residents, the potential direct impact from mining operations will be on the water levels, quality of water in St. Marys River as well as in life the river sustains and salt intrusion into it. St. Marys River divides Georgia and Florida and flows into the Atlantic Ocean next to Fort Clinch State Park.

Emily Flore, Executive Director of St. Marys Riverkeeper, stated, “The more than 1.4 million gallons Twin Pines Minerals proposes to draw from the Floridan aquifer and the more than 1.1 million gallons it plans to draw from the surficial aquifer will have impacts on water levels in the swamp and river. Altering those water levels could further threaten the already endangered Atlantic sturgeon and increase the chances of saltwater intrusion into the St. Marys River.”

Several former Georgia EPD employees testified. One, Kristen Ritter Rivera commented that the proposed mine shows “a blatant disregard for the Georgia geological standards. The models cannot be validated because basic standards have been violated.”

Many other negative impacts were cited.

Many see the “demonstration project” as the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent as TPM LLC is proposing a downsized mine from its original proposal to site on 898 acres on upwards of 8,000 acres it owns. Remarks were made on the company’s checkered past. A Kevin Inno stated, “TPM has a long history of air, water, noise violations. Past performance predicts future behavior.”

Brian Foster of the Georgia Conservancy questioned how such a project could proceed when it lacks consistency with the Charlton County, Georgia Comprehensive Plan. And Brian Magnum, a lifelong visitor to the ONWR, stated, “The impact of the environmental, air, noise and light pollution far outweigh the economic impact the TPM claims will take place in the local economy.”

Dottie Head of the Georgia Audubon organization, asked, “Will there be lights on all night from the mine operating 24 hours, as this area is a critical habitat for migrating birds?”

Kathleen Bergeron, V.P. Conservation of the Fly Fishers International, addressed the devastating impact of not keeping the soil wet in the ONWR. “The over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide in those soils could be cut back significantly.”

And last, many questioned the sanity of putting the Okefenokee Swamp, a 10,000-year-old natural freshwater treasure, and in the process of being considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at risk for a risky commercial venture. Rabbi Lauren Rosenthal of Georgia Interfaith Light stated, “We need to work the garden, serve the garden, protect the garden. It’s a sacred place.”

The EPD estimates more than 200,000 comments will be received. Once public comment is closed, the Georgia EPD will issue a formal response.

Written comments must be made by 4 p.m. on April 9, 2024 and can be made at: [email protected]

All documents open for public comment can be found at: https://epd.georgia.gov/twin-pines

5 Comments
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wilma
Member
wilma(@wilmaa65gmail-com)
29 days ago

Very informative. I hope Florida groups and people take note and action.

Alex Wood
Active Member
Alex Wood(@alex-wood)
29 days ago

In truth there are 2 supporters, Twin Pines and GA EPD. Keep a close watch on this as it has the makings of a Friday at 5 deal. This venture is insane. A potential UNESCO World Heritage Site at risk? Stay vigilant.

Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
29 days ago

Stop the mine!

oldtimehockey
Noble Member
oldtimehockey(@oldtimehockey)
29 days ago

Seems to be a lot of fear-mongering. What’s specifically is the environmental impact?

CastilianAmelian
Member
CastilianAmelian(@castilianamelian)
20 days ago

The mine which would produce some needed raw materials is just simply too close to a near pristine natural area.
Anyone that is ambivalent or thinks otherwise and has never been in the Okefenokee Swamp should plan a trip
now and they will understand why the mine in that location is a terrible idea.
It is hard for some to see an economic benefit of the swamp if they can’t take something of value from it besides good memories and peace of mind. It has had challenges to it’s survival in the past. Hopefully sound judgement and public opposition can stop the titanium mine here.