Above the Waterline: The great Okefenokee Swamp is threatened, again

Courtesy Explore Georgia.

The November sky was beginning to darken, as evening approached. We had finished setting up our tents on a wooden platform surrounded by tea-colored water: naturally pure freshwater, stained by tannins released by decomposing vegetation. As the darkness deepened, I could see what appeared to be tiny lights a few hundred yards away, just above the waterline; the lights were in pairs and glowing red. Although there were no barriers, our guide reassured me that the alligators would not crawl onto our camping platform. I don’t recall sleeping much that night.

The next day was beautiful, as we continued to paddle our way through the Great Okefenokee Swamp, the largest intact, blackwater wilderness swamp in North America, which has been protected as a national wildlife refuge since 1937. The water was very low and, in some places, we had to pole through dense clusters of water lilies and floating peat mats to deeper water. Although it was more than thirty years ago, I still remember massive cypress trees and hardwoods hung with thousands of sparkling spider webs that caught the morning dew. In the distance, we could hear the bugle calls of sandhill cranes, migrating through Georgia to warmer climates.

A decade later, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood on the edge of the Okefenokee in southeast Georgia and took an “unequivocal public stand” against a proposal by DuPont to strip mine titanium dioxide along the eastern ridge of the wildlife refuge. According to The New York Times, Mr. Babbitt rejected in advance all arguments that the swamp and its wildlife and forests would not be harmed by mining 38,000 acres for the whitening pigment used in paint, paper products, toothpaste and even Oreo cookies.

“You can study this, you can write all the documents in the world,” Mr. Babbitt said, “but they are not going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there will be no impact. It isn’t going to happen.”

Jerry McCollum vividly remembers the years in the late 1990s, when, as the head of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, he and other conservationists fought the existential threat to the nearly 700 square-mile wetland. Along with the biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that manages the Okefenokee, Jerry worried that the huge mining operation could impact the swamp’s hydrology – its little-understood water balance – by disrupting the soil and sand ridge next to the refuge.

Now retired, Jerry told me recently about the endless meetings, late night negotiations and steadfast persistence that were required to force DuPont to agree – through what was dubbed a “corporate collaborative” (read: a process to wear out the opponents) – to satisfy the environmental concerns or terminate the mining project. Ultimately, DuPont was forced by the public and federal resource agencies to take its mining equipment elsewhere, after donating thousands of acres and funding local projects.

Jerry isn’t surprised that another mining company is threatening the Okefenokee today. More than a year ago, a company named Twin Pines Minerals (formed by failing coal mining interests) began buying land near Trail Ridge, a geological structure formed nearly 250,000 years ago that serves as a natural barrier to keep water in the swamp depression. In July, Twin Pines applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Georgia to begin strip mining 2,400 acres of land to an average depth of fifty feet: phase one of a larger project that would impact a total of 12,000 acres over thirty years – a smaller footprint than the DuPont proposal, but just as potentially devastating.

Earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service outlined its concerns of “substantial risks for significant affect to the environment.” The written comments noted that it’s unknown how mining deep into the sandy soil might alter Trail Ridge’s water holding and movement characteristics. Mining could impact water levels in the swamp and the St. Mary’s River, which begins in the Okefenokee.

Although Twin Pines has conducted environmental studies, government agencies, local businesses, residents and environmentalists say that the company must conduct more thorough evaluations through an environmental impact study, prior to any permitting consideration. They note that the internationally-famous swamp is too precious to be risked for short-term gain to produce minerals that are located elsewhere.

We cannot assume that federal agencies, such as Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA, will be allowed to follow the recommendations of their scientists and oppose the Okefenokee mining permits under the current Administration. Just last month, EPA caved in to pressure from the White House and reversed its opposition to a massive open-pit copper and gold mine that endangers one of the world’s most important salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Please speak up and make your concerns known, even if you have never been to Pogo’s iconic swamp. Do it so your grandchildren may camp in the Great Okefenokee and see red eyes glowing in the night, as the sun fades over the tops of cypress trees.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: No later than Sept. 12, submit your comments to: US Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah Division, Attention: Ms. Holly Ross, 1104 North Westover Boulevard, Suite 9, Albany, GA 31707 – or by email to holly.a.ross@usace.army.mil.

 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

 

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