Mining proposal draws 170K public comments

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Mar. 23—A record number of public comments have been sent to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division regarding a proposal to mine heavy minerals near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Atlanta lawyer Josh Marks said Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals continues a concerted effort to get mining approved because the company claims there are "billions of dollars of minerals" at the proposed mining site.

"We understand that EPD has received over 170,000 comments on the project, which is by far the largest number of comments ever submitted for a permit application in the history of Georgia," Marks said. "U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service submitted joint comments that strongly challenge the mining plan and EPD's analysis, and also say that the federal government needs to retake jurisdiction over the project."

Marks said the comments by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service "reinforce in the strongest way" what other scientists are saying.

"The analyses by both Twin Pines and EPD are grossly defective, and the mining use plan should be rescinded," he said. "And the recommendation for the Corps (of Engineers) to take back jurisdiction over the project is absolutely correct. EPD should suspend its review of the permit while the corps addresses the jurisdictional issue."

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service expressed concern about potential negative impacts from mining to wildlife and ecosystems.

"These changes in hydrology may result in increased wildfire occurrence by drying vegetation of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Okefenokee swamp, thereby threatening and/or decreasing habitat quality for federally listed and at-risk species found there, such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the proposed threatened Suwannee alligator snapping turtle and other plants and wildlife," according to officials.

A National Parks Service review concludes "the modeling used to predict the magnitude, extent and types of impacts from the proposed mining process and reclamation was not adequate to accurately predict the impacts to the Okefenokee wetland ecosystem, including the wildlife refuge itself."

Another major concern is the proposed location to monitor withdrawals from a gage in Macclenny instead of one in Moniac, which is located much closer to the proposed mining site, said C. Rhett Jackson, professor of water resources at the University of Georgia.

"EPD's reliance on the St Marys River gage at Macclenny, Fla., to evaluate the potential effects of the mine's groundwater withdrawals on the swamp is incorrect and unsupportable, and its consequent conclusion that the mine will have no impact on the swamp is also incorrect," Jackson wrote. "Eleven senior research hydrologists at top southeastern universities, in addition to myself, have concluded that analyzing the withdrawals against the Macclenny gage data is irrelevant to the question of whether the mine will affect the hydrology of the swamp."

Emily Driscoll, director of program communications for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Twin Pines' plans to use experimental techniques are "not based on sound engineering" and conservation principles.

"The withdrawal of 1.44 million gallons of water daily would lower water levels in the swamp, affect flow to the upper St. Marys River, and increase wildfire risk to the region," Driscoll said. "The proposed mine is not consistent with the existing land use in the area."