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Opponents of titanium mine near Okefenokee focusing on mining company's qualifications
Okefenokee
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge crew member Walker Huling, left, and maintenance crew leader Pete Chesser pile their pruned vegetation along a wilderness water trail on April 5, 2022, in Folkston, Ga. (AP photo/Stephen B. Morton/file)

ATLANTA — Opponents of a proposal to mine titanium near the Okefenokee Swamp have long concentrated their fire primarily on the environmental degradation it would wreak on the largest blackwater swamp in North America.

Now, they're also building a case against the mine based on what they say are Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals' (TPM) alarming lack of qualifications to carry out the plan.

"The overwhelming scientific consensus that TPM's project will damage the Okefenokee should be enough to convince [the Georgia Environmental Protection Division] to deny the permit application for this dangerous scheme," said Josh Marks, an environmental lawyer who led a successful fight against a mine DuPont sought to open near the swamp during the 1990s and is spearheading opposition to the Twin Pines plan.

"But when you add the facts that TPM has no experience whatsoever in building titanium sand mines … it begs the question as to why Governor [Brian] Kemp and EPD continue to entertain this farce."

"The company and its leadership have a long track record of noncompliance and environmental harm," added Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and chairman of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance. "Twin Pines has consistently failed time and again over the past four years to prove that its proposed mining operations will not harm the Okefenokee Swamp, and we do not believe the company will ever be able to do so."

Twin Pines Minerals is seeking state permits to mine titanium oxide along Trail Ridge near the swamp. The proposal generated more than 100,000 comments in opposition during a recent 60-day public comment period.

Opponents have introduced bipartisan bills during each of last two General Assembly sessions to ban surface mining along Trail Ridge, only to see both fall short of reaching the floor of either legislative chamber. This year's legislation drew 94 of the 180 members of the state House of Representatives as cosponsors.

The mine's critics say it would reduce the water level in the Okefenokee, which would have devastating consequences from polluting the swamp to exposing peat, making the area more susceptible to wildfires.

Beyond the environmental impact, the project's opponents are now citing Twin Pines' lack of experience in mining, which they say is limited to coal.

They also allege the joint ownership and management of Twin Pines with Georgia Renewable Power LLC, another Alabama company that drew the General Assembly's attention several years ago for burning creosote-treated railroad ties at two biomass plants in Northeast Georgia. Creosote has been linked to respiratory problems and some forms of cancer.

The legislature passed a bill in 2020 banning the practice, and Georgia Renewable Power is facing a nuisance lawsuit filed by 30 families from Madison and Franklin counties.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle declined to respond to the allegations surrounding his company's affiliation with Georgia Renewable Power. But he defended his qualifications to mine titanium.

"I am a registered professional mining engineer with more than 40 years of experience in mining a very broad range of minerals, including titanium," Ingle wrote in an email to Capitol Beat. "Our senior management team has more than 200 years of experience. We have been in the titanium market since 2015."

While the mine's legislative critics are expected to continue pushing their bill banning titanium mining next year, they face an opponent that wields a good deal of influence under the Gold Dome. Ingle contributed $18,750 to the campaigns of Republican state lawmakers and GOP Lt. Gov. Burt Jones last year, while Twin Pines donated $5,750, according to the campaign finance watchdog website OpenSecrets.

The company also has a large roster of experienced, well respected lobbyists in its employ.

Meanwhile, the EPD is continuing to review a draft Mining Land Use Plan Twin Pines submitted in January. If the state agency signs off on the plan, it would trigger a second public comment period before the project can proceed.

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