SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The company seeking permits to mine minerals near the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and its vast wildlife refuge has agreed to pay a $20,000 fine to Georgia environmental regulators, who say the company violated state laws while collecting soil samples for its permit application.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division's assessment of a civil penalty against Twin Pines Minerals comes as the Alabama-based company waits for the agency to approve a final mining plan for how it would conduct mining operations and mitigate any environmental damage. The plan is required for Twin Pines to qualify for a permit. Regulators released a draft plan a year ago.
Since 2019, Twin Pines has been seeking government permits to mine titanium dioxide less than 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from the southeastern boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest U.S. refuge east of the Mississippi River.
Scientists have warned that mining near the Okefenokee's bowl-like rim could irreparably harm the swamp’s ability to hold water and increase the frequency of withering droughts.
Twin Pines has insisted it can mine without harming the swamp. In a summary of the draft plan released in January 2023, Georgia regulators said their own analysis “concluded that water level in the swamp will be minimally impacted.”
A consent order issued by Georgia regulators Tuesday accuses Twin Pines of drilling soil samples at the mine site without having a professional geologist or engineer supervise the work, which is required by state law. The samples were taken in 2018 to collect data for the company's mining application.
The document also says the company failed to provide a required letter of credit or a performance bond, which essentially acts as a security deposit that can be forfeited if drilling violates the law.
An attorney for Twin Pines said Wednesday the company denies any wrongdoing.
“The alleged infractions are based on EPD’s interpretation of ambiguous technical regulations,” attorney Lewis Jones said in a statement. He added: “We agreed to sign the consent order to put this matter behind us and move our project forward.”
One opponent of the mining project, Atlanta environmental attorney Josh Marks, called the $20,000 penalty “ridiculously low.” He said the collection of soil samples without the required professional supervision means information Twin Pines submitted in its applications can't be trusted.
“If EPD insists on continuing to entertain this dangerous project, at the very least, it should force Twin Pines Minerals to redo its exploratory drilling in full compliance with state law and submit a revised permit application, no matter how long that takes.” Marks said. “Only then will EPD be able to accurately determine the impact of mining on the Okefenokee.”
Scientists who are critical of Twin Pines' proposed mine have said they found other problems with the company's application. Hydrologists for the National Park Service last year told Georgia regulators they discovered “critical shortcomings” and technical errors in computer modeling Twin Pines submitted to support its assurance that mining won't harm the swamp. The company defended its work.
The National Park Service gave notice last year that it’s nominating the Okefenokee refuge for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site — a rare distinction that would boost its profile as one of the world’s last intact blackwater swamps.
The 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 prairies draw roughly 600,000 visitors each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.
In February 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the proposed mine could pose “substantial risks” to the swamp, including its ability to hold water. Some impacts, it said, “may not be able to be reversed, repaired, or mitigated for.”
The role of Georgia regulators is critical because the federal government, which normally weighs environmental permits in tandem with state agencies, has relinquished oversight of the Twin Pines project.
The Army Corps of Engineers declared in 2020 that it no longer had authority over the project because of regulatory rollbacks under then-President Donald Trump. Efforts by President Joe Biden to restore federal oversight failed. The Army Corps entered an agreement with Twin Pines to maintain its hands-off position in 2022.