Agency decision offers big setback to Okefenokee mining plan

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A federal agency has delivered a big setback to a company’s controversial plan to mine near the edge of Okefenokee Swamp and its vast wildlife refuge.

A government memo said Friday that the Army Corps of Engineers is reasserting jurisdiction over Twin Pines Minerals’ proposal to mine minerals just outside Okefenokee, home to the largest US wildlife refuge in east of the Mississippi River.

Scientists have warned that mining near the bowl-shaped edge of the swamp could damage its ability to hold water. They urged the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the project a permit. But the agency said in 2020 it no longer had that authority after regulatory rollbacks under then-President Donald Trump reduced the types of waterways eligible for protection under Clean Water. Act.

Trump’s rollbacks were later dropped by federal courts. President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to restore federal oversight of development projects that under Trump had been allowed to circumvent regulations aimed at preventing the pollution of waterways or the drying up of wetlands.

Michael Connor, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, said in Friday’s memo that earlier rulings waiving the corps’ jurisdiction over the Georgia mining plan and another mine project in outside of Tucson, Arizona had been canceled.

Connor wrote that both projects would have to start over with new applications for federal permits. He said previous rulings allowing them to bypass federal regulators “are not valid” because tribal governments with ancestral ties to the proposed mine sites were not consulted.

The Twin Pines project in Georgia will require consultation with the Muscogee Creek Nation before it can move forward, the memo says.

“We have said since the day we announced our plans that we will follow the regulations before us at all times,” Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines, said in a statement. He added, “We intend to go ahead with our application and meet all the requirements.”

U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat who has fought the mine project outside Okefenokee since taking office last year, called the decision a major victory.

“I am pleased to announce the restoration of protection to this wildlife refuge and its surrounding wetlands,” Ossoff said in a statement late Friday. “The Okefenokee is a natural wonder and one of the most precious lands in Georgia. I will continue to fight to protect it for future generations.”

Twin Pines, based in Alabama, was awaiting a permitting decision from the Georgia Division of Environmental Protection, the sole regulatory agency overseeing the project ahead of the federal government’s decision on Friday, which restores authority to Army Corps regulations over 556 acres (225 hectares) of wetlands in the proposed mining area.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly 630 square miles (1,630 square kilometers) in southeast Georgia and is home to alligators, bald eagles and other protected species. The swamp’s wildlife, cypress forests and flooded grasslands attract about 600,000 visitors each year, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge.

Two decades ago, chemical giant DuPont scrapped plans to mine outside the Okefenokee after encountering fierce resistance. Twin Pines wants permits to mine a small fraction of the acreage pursued by DuPont. Ingle insisted that his company could operate the site without damaging the marsh.

Government scientists are skeptical. In February 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the proposed mine could pose “substantial risks” to the marsh, including its ability to hold water. Some impacts, he said, “may not be able to be reversed, repaired or mitigated”.

Conservation groups applauded the federal government’s decision.

“Mining at the gates of a rare ecological treasure like Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp defies common sense,” said Kelly Moser, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who specializes in drinking water issues. “And we are delighted that this announcement removes the threat to hundreds of acres of critically important wetlands.

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