Home Secretary’s visit spotlights Okefenokee supporters

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A quarter of a century ago, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visited the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia and denounced a mining project nearby titanium open pit proposed by giant DuPont before the company had even applied for a single permit.

Babbitt’s visit marked a turning point in efforts by conservationists to protect Okefenokee, the largest wildlife refuge in the eastern United States. DuPont eventually backed out of its mining plan and donated its 16,000 acres to the Conservation Fund.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Okefenokee on Friday as a recently revived mining proposal put forward by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals progresses through the state permitting process. His position exercises no regulatory authority over the mine, but it allows him to highlight the risks it poses to the swamp.

Senator Jon Ossoff and the Secretary of the Interior. Deb Haaland visited the Okefenokee by boat. Credit: Screen capture from video provided by Senator Jon Ossoff

She and Senator Jon Ossoff, who openly oppose the mine, toured the shelter by boat, inspected it by helicopter and heard about 20 local leaders talk about the importance of protecting the shelter for communities from the region.

Haaland left without making a statement about mining or even speaking to activists gathered outside the visitor center. A press release issued after his visit did not address the mining. Those hoping for a repeat of Babbitt’s performance are still hoping.

Among them was Josh Marks, an environmental lawyer and leader in the fight against DuPont.

“I was there that day when Babbitt said that titanium dioxide was a very common mineral next to a very rare swamp, and that he was going to urge the company to drop its plans,” Marks said. . “He did, and they abandoned their project.”

“I urged her to do it and I fervently hope that Sec. Haaland will follow in Babbit’s footsteps, follow the lead of the scientific community that says the Twin Pines mine will damage the swamp, and urge Governor Kemp to deny permit applications for this dangerous project,” Marks said.

Change of responsibility

This round of mining debates began in July 2019 when Twin Pines first applied for a permit from the Corps of Engineers to mine heavy minerals on 12,000 acres of Trail Ridge, a former barrier island that forms a earthen dam to the east of the refuge. The public outcry against the plan was swift and strong, although Charlton County officials supported it.

The company withdrew that request the following March, but quickly replaced it with a “demonstration project” of less than 1,000 acres. The lean project was intended to show that mining could be done without harming the refuge. But before the Corps completed its analysis, a Trump administration change in the definition of wetlands meant the project no longer needed a permit from the Corps’ Clean Water Act. Instead, in October 2020, the state EPD began processing the five state permits needed to get the mine operational.

Activists show their support for the Okefenokee outside the shelter’s visitor center. Credit: Stewart Dohrman

In June of this year, the Corps reinserted itself in the process saying the agency had not consulted with the Muscogee Creek Nation as required. Twin Pines sued and the Corps settled, returning the decision-making process to the state EPD in August. Muscogee Creek Nation Chief David Hill was among those who participated in Friday’s community conversation with Haaland.

Voice of the community

Haaland, a Pueblo de Laguna member, is the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary. She served as U.S. Representative from New Mexico from 2019 to 2021 before her confirmation as Interior Secretary in March 2021. In Congress, she has focused on environmental justice and climate change, among other issues, according to his biography on the Home Office website.

Community members at the closed-door roundtable at the shelter on Friday tried to get Haaland to understand what the shelter means to them, several said afterward.

Deborah Reed speaks during the Community Conversation at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as Sen. Jon Ossoff and Interior Sec. Deb Haaland listens. Credit: Screen capture from video provided by Senator Jon Ossoff

“This place was a sanctuary for black people in the area because there were so many places during segregation that we couldn’t go,” said Deborah Reed, a local business owner who, along with her cousin, was the first to enter Camden County High School where she was in the class of 1969.

Beaches were off-limits to young Reed, but black churches arranged trips to Okefenokee where there were no color lines.

“It was one of the places we could go, and we could actually be free,” Reed said. “Nobody told us we couldn’t do this. Do you understand what you felt?

Growing up, Reed picnicked and enjoyed boat rides and even “adopted” an alligator she named “Lil’ Mo” who became “Big Mo.”

Reed said it was important for Haaland to visit the shelter.

“The swamp itself is a one-of-a-kind experience,” she said. “And when you look at it, if it does nothing but let you know there is a God, I don’t know anything else that will. I’m serious. The Okefenokee is in fact the soul, the spiritual being of this region.

Reverend Antwon Nixon speaks with Rena Ann Peck, Executive Director of the Georgia River Network. Credit: Stewart Dohrman

Reverend Antwon Nixon is the founder of the non-profit organization Sowing Seeds Outside the Walls and the pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Folkston. He stressed to Haaland that the Okefenokee needed active support.

“The Okefenokee has sustained itself for many years without humans, and now the Okefenokee needs humans because of humans,” Nixon said, recapping the conversation. “It worked well, on its own, until we came on the scene. So now it’s up to us to make sure we’re doing the right thing, the thing responsible for what was done wrong.

After her visit, Haaland tweeted, “In addition to its natural beauty, the world-renowned Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is home to a variety of plants, birds and wildlife. It is of vital importance to the tribes and communities living in the region.

Mining controversy

At its closest point, the proposed Twin Pines mining operation will be approximately 3 miles from the border of the 438,000 acre refuge. The company says: “The proposed mine poses no risk to the environment.

Twin Pines did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment on Haaland’s visit.

The Haaland-led Department of the Interior said in its analysis last year that the proposed open-pit mine “poses risks to the Okefenokee Swamp ecosystem, including the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. “.

Hydrology experts not involved in the licensing process have also expressed concerns. Among them is C. Rhett Jackson, a top hydrologist at the University of Georgia, who has been a persistent vocal warning of the danger of the mining project.

“There is no way to operate a large open pit mine on Trail Ridge that is compatible with the most important regional land use, the Okefenokee Swamp USFWS National Wildlife Refuge,” he wrote in a 2021 memo to the EPD criticizing the modeling used to analyze the mine. effects on the marsh. In a more recent memo, Jackson pointed to the shortcomings of the mitigation plan, concluding, “It is likely that this mitigation plan will result in poor soil conditions, low productivity scrub forest, and little or no areas wet at the top of the ridge. . Prior to mining, the site was made up of more than 50% wetlands.

Earlier this year, bipartisan legislation to protect the Okefenokee was introduced in the Georgia General Assembly. The bill did not receive a vote. Last month, State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) spoke at the Georgia Environmental Conference on Jekyll Island and pledged to renew the effort in the next legislative session.

A recent poll of 625 registered voters in Georgia by Mason-Dixon Polling on behalf of the Georgia Water Coalition indicated high support for protecting the Okefenokee, with 69% responding that the governor of Georgia should take “immediate action.” to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from “risky mining”. proposals.” Full survey results are available on the Georgia Water Coalition website: www.gawater.org/okefenokee-swamp

While no comment period is yet open for state permits, the EPD has received more than 27,000 comments, with most requesting the denial of permits. A sample is available at these links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

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