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Fri May 22, 2020, 11:36 PM

Proposed Georgia Mine Next to Okefenokee Swamp Raises Alarms

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: John Wollwerth/Alamy

Opponents say excavating a ridge along the swamp’s edge threatens the water that is the lifeblood of the largest national wildlife refuge in the East.

By Andy McGlashen
Associate Editor, Audubon Magazine
May 22, 2020

Head about 40 miles into southern Georgia from the Atlantic shore and you’ll find yourself facing another, older beachfront. This is Trail Ridge, a mile-wide, 100-mile-long sandy spine parallel to the coast, the remnant of a Pleistocene barrier island system. Climb up and over the roughly 150-foot-high rise and you’ll soon wade into the tea-colored waters of a vast wetland wilderness, the Okefenokee Swamp.

The 700-square-mile bog, some 90 percent of it within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, is the largest intact swamp of its sort in the country. Its ponds, prairies, marshes, and woods host alligators, black bears, and more than 200 bird species, including the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the threatened Wood Stork. Trail Ridge acts as a dam along the Okefenokee’s eastern edge. It holds the swamp in place, and the way water moves through its layers of soil influences the swamp's depth and flow.

Mixed in with its ancient beach sand, the ridge also holds significant deposits of minerals whose domestic production the Trump administration has sought to increase for national security and economic strength. Companies have mined parts of Trail Ridge in Florida for years. But now, an Alabama company wants to pull titanium and zirconium out of the ridge in Georgia, starting with a tract less than three miles from the refuge in what would be by far the closest mine to the Okefenokee.

The mining company, Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, says the project will create up to 400 well-paid jobs and more than double the tax base in Charlton County while curbing the nation’s reliance on imports of critical minerals. (Zirconium is used mostly in the nuclear power industry; about 90 percent of the country's titanium mineral supply is used as titanium dioxide, a white pigment for toothpaste and paint, with the rest processed into metals useful for aircraft and medical equipment.) It describes its proposal as a demonstration project—a chance to prove, on a 900-acre parcel, that it can safely mine near the Okefenokee without harming the swamp and its wildlife.


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