SAVANNAH — A company is seeking permits to mine minerals near the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, a vast untamed wilderness that's home to the largest national wildlife refuge in the eastern U.S.
The proposal comes 20 years after chemical giant DuPont abandoned plans to mine outside the Okefenokee amid staunch opposition from environmentalists and the administration of then-President Bill Clinton. Critics feared irreparable harm to the swamp's fragile ecosystem that serves as habitat to alligators, bald eagles and other protected species.
Now Twin Pines Minerals LLC of Birmingham, Alabama, wants federal and state permits to mine titanium dioxide less than 4 miles from the southeastern boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, according to records filed Friday by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The refuge covers nearly 630 square miles near the Georgia-Florida state line. The swamp's tea-colored waters, 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.
Charles McMillan of the Georgia Conservancy said his concerns mirror those environmentalists had about DuPont's mining proposal in the 1990s, namely the potential to foul or even drain water from the swamp by taking deep scoops of sandy soil so close to the Okefenokee's bowl-like boundary.
"This is a nationally significant resource," McMillian said Tuesday. "It's got a tremendous, unique ecological value. It's one of the few places you can go in the eastern U.S. and be in a truly intact wilderness."
The titanium dioxide that Twin Pines Minerals wants to mine is primarily used to produce white pigment for paints and paper. In its permit application, the company says its mining operation would permanently affect 65 acres (.26 sq. kilometers) of wetlands and 4,658 feet (1,420 meters) of tributaries. It also predicts impacts to the gopher tortoise and gopher frog, species that are protected by state law in Georgia but not by the federal Endangered Species Act.
The company's application says the mining operation's 3.7-mile distance from the refuge boundary would provide "a substantial buffer of protection for this sensitive resource."
Twin Pines Minerals President Steve Ingle said in a phone interview that his company's mining techniques are "much more environmentally friendly and efficient than what was being proposed in the 1990s" by DuPont.
DuPont's plan to mine on 38,000 acres outside the refuge caused such an outcry that then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visited the Okefenokee in April 1997 to declare his opposition.
Babbitt told a crowd at the swamp: "I don't think that kind of dredging and sand-mining operation is an appropriate neighbor for a national wildlife refuge."
DuPont gave up its Georgia mining plan in 1999. Years later, the company donated 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of land it had purchased next to the refuge to a conservation group.
Twin Pines Minerals said it plans public meetings in southeast Georgia in August to further discuss its plan, which the company said includes employing roughly 300 workers.
Though the land the company is seeking permits to mine covers a much smaller acreage than DuPont's proposal, Twin Pines Minerals said it eventually wants to expand its mining operation to about 19 square miles.
Susan Heisey, the supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge, said the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking a close look at the new mining proposal.
"We plan to review it in detail," Heisey said. "We certainly have concerns because of the significance of the Okefenokee swamp ecosystem and the wildlife refuge."