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Opinion | A dire threat to a national wildlife treasure

One of the hardest things to reconcile about life in the American South is that this region of outstanding natural beauty, this still-wild place of irreplaceable biodiversity, is largely in the hands of politicians happy to sell it to the highest bidder. It’s hard to reconcile, like even land that’s supposedly protected is never really safe. And how state regulators responsible for protection often look the other way when the highest bidder violates the state’s own environmental regulations.

An egregious example of this pattern can be seen in Georgia, where state officials are about to approve an open-pit mine on the southeastern edge of the magnificent state Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

At 407,000 acres, the Okefenokee is the largest ecologically intact blackwater wetland in North America and the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi. It houses or accommodates a huge diversity of plant and animal life, including endangered and threatened species. It is an important stopover for migratory birds. Designated as a wetland of international importance under the 1971 RAMSAR Convention, it sequesters enormous amounts of carbon in the form of peat.

The proposed mine poses a major threat to the swamp. Trail Ridge, the site where Twin Pines Minerals will begin operations, is a geological formation that acts as a low earthen dam that holds the waters of the Okefenokee in place. The mine would remove the topsoil, excavate the sand pits, separate the titanium from the sand, and then return the sand and soil to approximately their original location. To handle all of this, Twin Pines would have to pump 1.4 million gallons of groundwater per day from the aquifer that supplies the Okefenokee.

I guess that doesn’t sound bad unless you know that this destroy, extract and replace plan is effective Mountaintop removal transferred to the water-rich lowlands. After such an attack, there is no way to restore an ecosystem. When water bodies become clogged with mud, aquatic plants and animals die. Drinking water can be contaminated with heavy metals. Ancient land formations and their underlying habitats are being lost forever. The living soil remains barren.

As a species, we have never allowed ecological imperatives to get in the way of something we believe we need from the land. The thing is: we don’t need this mine. Titanium dioxide is primarily used as a pigment in a range of products including paints and toothpaste. It is not difficult to find it in less environmentally sensitive areas.

Twin Pines, an Alabama company, claims the proposed mine would bring hundreds of much-needed jobs to an economically depressed part of the state. It doesn’t say how much income would be lost if the mine affected tourism in this ethereal spot, which attracts more than 800,000 visitors each year who spend about $91.5 million there. Tourism in Okefenokee “supports 750 jobs, $79 million in economic output and $11.1 million in annual tax revenue for the region,” it says an analysis of the Conservation Fund.

So even from a purely human perspective, there is no compelling reason for Georgia to allow mining on a fragile ridge of land less than three miles from the Okefenokee Swamp.

Of course, for environmental reasons, setting up an open-cast mine near this nature reserve should be completely illegal. That’s probably it. National Park Service hydrologists found last year: “Critical defects” in the model Twin Pines used to demonstrate the security of its plan – a model that “obscures the true impact of mining on the refuge.”

It is important to note that this is not a fight between the people of Georgia and some out-of-state environmental organizations that do not understand the dynamics of rural poverty. The people of Georgia value the Okefenokee. When I wrote about this threat to the swamp last year, the first phase of public comment was coming to an end, and the sentiment was already clear: 69 percent of Georgians supported permanently protecting the swamp from development, and Georgia’s Department of Environmental Protection received the endorsement more than 200,000 public protests against the mine.

What Georgians know — what Georgia environmental regulators refuse to acknowledge — is that we should react just as strongly to the idea of ​​a mine on the edge of the Okefenokee as we do to “any action that threatens the integrity of something like Yellowstone or Yellowstone.” “Yosemite or the Grand Canyon,” Bill Sapp, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. Instead of leaving it up to some out-of-state company to profit from it, Georgia officials should protect this swamp with every means at their disposal.

Yet on February 9, just a few days after I wrote an essay about the threat to American wetlands in general and the Okefenokee area in particular, the Georgia Department of Environmental Conservation published—don’t even get me started on the irony—one publication out Design Approvals for the mine.

Here’s another irony for you, courtesy of Reporting by Russ Bynum of The Associated Press: “The draft permits were released barely two weeks after Twin Pines agreed to pay a fine of $20,000 ordered by Georgia regulators who said the company violated state law when it collected soil samples for its permit application.” To put this sequence of events another way: The Georgia Department of Environmental Protection gave the company a slap on the wrist and then staged a Parade.

How is it even possible that federal regulators are on the verge of approving an unnecessary mine on the border of a desperately needed federal wildlife refuge? A mine that the state’s own citizens, along with a bipartisan majority of its lawmakers, so vehemently oppose? In a comprehensive report for The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionDrew Kann explains the role that lobbying and campaign contributions — and a devastating environmental cutback during Donald Trump’s presidency — have played in leaving the Okefenokee so vulnerable.

When Georgia regulators issued the mine’s draft permit, they also gave the public 60 days to comment. After April 9, final permits could be issued and Twin Pines could begin operations. In the meantime, efforts are underway to destroy the mine have shifted into even higher gear.

The National Park Service has nominated the Okefenokee Preserve as a UNESCO World Heritage Sitean award that, if granted, would bring more visitors to the area — and bring additional scrutiny to Georgia’s management of the swamp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have notified Georgia regulators formal assertion of federal rights over waters influencing the Okefenokee. “Disruption to the natural flow of groundwater in this interconnected system could have far-reaching consequences for both the protected area and surrounding areas,” wrote Mike Oetker, the agency’s acting southeast regional director.

A new bill is before the Georgia House of Representatives – which the Georgia Conservancy supports — would declare a moratorium on new mineral mining permit applications, using the method Twin Pines plans to use at Trail Ridge. If passed by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia before the end of the legislative session on March 28, the new bill would effectively turn the first phase of the Twin Pines mine into a pilot site and prevent the company from expanding mining operations until scientists had time to collect data and assess the mine’s impact on the swamp. The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on it on Tuesday.

In a virtual public meeting attended by hundreds of people this month, Commentators spoke for three hours to defend the swamp. (No one spoke in favor of the mine.) “It just doesn’t make sense to endanger the national wildlife refuge just to make rich people richer by mining an extremely unimportant mineral,” said one local resident.

That makes no sense at all. Building a mine on the edge of the Okefenokee would mean depriving surrounding Georgians of clean drinking water, depriving our wild neighbors of one of the few truly wild places we have left, and depriving the world of an ecological treasure. The Okefenokee is not part of Georgia. It belongs to the planet. It’s ours. And we should all do everything in our power to save it.

To comment on the proposed mine by April 9, please email TwinPines.Comment@dnr.ga.gov or send a letter to the Land Protection Branch, 4244 International Parkway, Atlanta Tradeport Suite 104, Atlanta, GA 30354. It is not necessary to live in Georgia to comment.

Margaret Renkla contributing opinion writer, is the author of the books “The Consolation of Crows: A Backyard Year,” “Finally Graceland” And “Late migrations.”

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