A proposal to mine near the Okefenokee Swamp was dealt a setback Friday after a federal agency determined the Alabama company behind the plan did not consult the Muscogee Creek Nation about the project. 

The Okefenokee Swamp attracts some 650,000 visits each year and is a major economic driver in Ware, Clinch, and Charlton counties. (Photo Georgia River Network)

The Okefenokee Swamp lost federal protection under the Trump administration, leaving the fate of the project in the hands of state environmental regulators who have been pressing Twin Pines Minerals LLC for more details about their plans.

But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday it would reverse the agency’s earlier determination, pointing to an early 2021 directive from President Joe Biden that tribal communities should be consulted on policies impacting them.

This means Twin Pines will have to reapply on the federal level, which the company president says will happen.

“We have said from the day we announced our plans that we would follow the regulations before us at any given time,” Steve Ingle said Saturday morning. “The fact that there appears to have been a change doesn’t come as a surprise, it isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last.”

The company is seeking to initially mine titanium oxide – used often as a whitening agent in paint and paper – along 570 acres near the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River, with the potential to expand to thousands more acres later.

The mining would start in Charlton County about three miles from the refuge along Trail Ridge, which is a one-mile wide and 100-mile-long ridge that forms the hydrological divide between the Okefenokee and St. Marys River.

The project has attracted bipartisan opposition, with a group of state lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor pressing unsuccessfully this legislative session to prevent mining near the swamp.

Sen. Jon Ossoff has pushed for federal oversight over the proposed mining project near the Okefenokee Swamp. (Photo: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder, 2021 file photo)

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat, has repeatedly pushed for federal oversight over the project. He celebrated the restored federal protections for the country’s largest blackwater swamp Friday.

“For the last year I’ve fought relentlessly to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from destruction. Today I am pleased to announce the restoration of protection for this wildlife refuge and its surrounding wetlands,” Ossoff said in a statement.  

“The Okefenokee is a natural wonder and one of Georgia’s most precious lands. I will continue fighting to protect it for future generations,” he continued.

Environmental advocates also cheered the news.

“Hallelujah,” said Rena Ann Peck, executive director with the Georgia River Network. “The Corps is re-engaged and it’s doubtful that mining would pass the federally required environment impact statement level study.

“It’s like we’re back at square one and that’s a great place to start,” she said. “And now we have more information from independent scientists that mining would harm the swamp, the St Marys River and thus the outdoor recreation industry that depends on them.”

Public outcry and government opposition played a critical role two decades ago in stopping Dupont’s plans to strip-mine titanium from 38,000 acres near the Okefenokee boundary.

Georgia Recorder Senior Reporter Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report. 

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Jill Nolin | Georgia Recorder

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending.