April 21, 2020

Protect the unique environment of the Okefenokee

Florida is bracketed by the Everglades on the south and the Okefenokee on the north.

Most of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is located in Georgia but a portion is in Baker County. Also, the swamp serves as the headwaters for the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. 

The Okefenokee is a natural wonder that deserves the highest levels of protection.

Yet there are concerns that mining for titanium near the Okefenokee will skirt traditional environmental reviews.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “it is like no other place on earth.”

The Okefenokee is that rarest of wonders, swampland that once was part of the ocean floor. The swamp is 38 miles in length at its longest point and 25 miles wide at its widest point. It is 700 square miles.

The swamp is about 7,000 years old, a peat-filled bog inside a saucer-shaped depression.

There are 70 islands, 60 names lakes and 22 named prairies.

In the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, there are 233 species of birds, 49 species of mammals, 64 species of reptiles, 37 species of amphibians and 39 species of fish.

There are endangered species there, too: the American bald eagle, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the wood stork.

So it is clear that the Okefenokee is a treasure. But it also exists near titanium deposits, which led DuPont to seek to mine the precious metals 20 years ago. After opposition emerged, DuPont pulled out.

Another mining proposal was made last year by Twin Pines. The company president has said he is confident that mining can take place without harming the environment. 

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed concerns to the “substantial risks” to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Last September, the Environmental Protection Agency released a letter stating that Twin Pines “has not demonstrated that the proposed project will not result in significant degradation, including individual or cumulative effects to fish and wildlife, ecosystem diversity, productivity and stability and recreational, aesthetic and economic values.”

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, whose North Florida congressional district includes Okefenokee impacts, wrote a February letter to the Army of Corps of Engineers.

Among his concerns:

 “It is crucial that the Corps require an environmental impact statement.”

The public needs to have an adequate chance to offer comments on the proposal. “The public has yet to see key information concerning the project. ... My constituents depend on a healthy Okefenokee Swamp, and it is unacceptable that so little consideration has been given to how the project will affect Florida’s resources.”

The Times-Union in recent months met with several environmentalists who seek to protect the Okefenokee led by Ricky Leroux, communications coordinator for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club representatives were concerned that by proposing an initial small are for mining that a more thorough environmental impact statement may be avoided.

The Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter said in a news release that calling the Twin Pines proposal a “demonstration project” is only the start of a broader mining plan. 

In fact, the Okefenokee and the St. Marys Rivers have been listed as among the nation’s most endangered waterways by American Rivers, a nonprofit.

Meanwhile, the public comment period regarding the Twin Pines mining proposal has been extended. An online public meeting will be held May 13 and public comments will close on May 28.

There is every reason to protect the precious Okefenokee under the highest possible environmental standards. 

Even more concerning, the Fish and Wildlife stated that if environmental damage occurs it may not be able to be repaired. 

No mining should be allowed anywhere near the Okefenokee without the most complete environmental impact statement

By:  Florida Times Union Editorial Board
Source: Florida Times Union