A bipartisan bill would ban future mining around Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee Protection Act is currently being considered in the Georgia legislature

Lawmakers are trying to ban mining around Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. Here’s what to know.
The Suwanee Canal, the only remnant of a failed attempt to drain the Okefenokee in the late 19th century. Today, it’s the main entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

The Okefenokee Swamp, the largest blackwater swamp in North America and one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders, is a rare ecological treasure. Home to thousands of native plants and animals—including at least 15,000 alligators—it also supports a thriving tourist economy in Southeast Georgia, employing over 700 people and bringing in $64.7 million of revenue a year. But the Okefenokee’s delicate ecology is frequently threatened by mining interests: an ancient sand dune that borders the swamp is full of valuable heavy minerals, buy hydrology experts say extracting them would cause significant water loss in the Okefenokee, leading to more frequent drought and fires.

This year, a bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers are trying to stop mining near the swamp. The Okefenokee Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville) would block any future mining along Trail Ridge near the swamp. House Bill 71 wouldn’t stop an existing mining proposal that Georgia regulators are currently considering, but supporters say it will provide crucial protections for the Okefenokee moving forward.

Here’s what else to know about the Okefenokee Protection Act.

What would the Okefenokee Protection Act do?

House Bill 71 would change Georgia law by prohibiting the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) from issuing, modifying, or renewing mining permits on a segment of Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee. The legislation reads in part, “Surface mining on Trail Ridge risks adverse impacts to the wetlands, water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, air quality, and wilderness values of the Okefenokee Swamp.”

Rep. Darlene Taylor introduced the legislation after a constituent brought the mining issue to her attention. “As a child, I vacationed there with my family many times,” Rep. Taylor told Atlanta. After talking to a geologist about the impact mining could have on the Okefenokee, she agreed to lead the legislative effort to protect it. “There isn’t anywhere else like it,” she said.

Lawmakers are trying to ban mining around Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. Here’s what to know.
Okefenokee Adventures leads boat tours through the swamp; over 600,000 people visit the Okefenokee every year, making it a cornerstone of the local economy.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Is the bill likely to pass?

The Okefenokee Protection Act has bipartisan support: it has six co-sponsors and has been signed by almost 40 legislators from both parties. The bill is currently in the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment; Rep. Taylor is working closely with Committee Chairwoman Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan) and said she expects it to get a hearing on the House floor in the next few weeks.

Rep. Taylor introduced the same legislation last year, but it got stuck in committee. It’s already making more headway this year, she said: “I’ve never received as much public comment as I have for this bill, even from people outside my district. I think if (the bill) gets to the floor, it will pass.”

Lawmakers are trying to ban mining around Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. Here’s what to know.
Katie Antczak of Okefenokee Swamp Park, holding a live young alligator, poses with Senator Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) and a friendly mascot at Okefenokee Swamp Day at the Georgia General Assembly on February 8, 2023.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Why won’t it impact the current mining proposal?

The Okefenokee Protection Act would go into effect this July, so it wouldn’t impact a proposed Twin Pines Minerals mine, which has been in the works since 2019. The Birmingham-based company want to build a 700-acre “demonstration mine” that would operate less than three miles from the Okefenokee. Twin Pines’ permit application bounced between federal and state agencies for years, but after multiple lawsuits, approval finally landed with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which is currently accepting public comment on its land use plan for the Twin Pines mine.

While it won’t be impacted by this legislation, the proposed Twin Pines project raised experts’ concerns about the impact of mining on the swamp, spurring the current legislation. Twin Pines’ original proposal was for 12,000 acres of Trail Ridge, but if this bill becomes law, that larger swath of land will be protected from mining.

What risk does mining pose to the Okefenokee swamp?

Experts believe that mining near the swamp would result in water loss in the Okefenokee and the rivers it feeds. Extracting heavy minerals from the sand requires pumping water from underground aquifers. Twin Pines says it can do this without causing significant water loss in the swamp, but ecologist and hydrologist aren’t convinced. “You’re drawing out a million gallons of groundwater a day,” explained Dr. Amy Rosemond, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Georgia. “How can you say you’re going to do no harm?”

Hydrologists believe the impact of water withdrawal will triple the frequency of drought near the extraction area, exposing the peat in the swamp and leading to more frequent fires. The dense peat layer beneath the swamp water makes the Okefenokee a critical carbon sink, but if the peat is exposed for prolonged periods due to drought, it can release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. Drought and fire also threaten the Okefenokee’s abundant biodiversity, as well as thousands of acres of commercial timber that ring the swamp.

For many area residents who love the Okefenokee, even a small risk of damage is too much. “When you see pictures of other places (that have been mined), they’re left desolate,” said Reverend Antwon Nixon, who lives in Folkston in Charlton County and has been an outspoken critic of the Twin Pines mine. “Even if they say it’s only a 1 percent chance, that’s still too big.”

In the 1990s, the mining company DuPont tried to build a large mine along Trail Ridge, but was blocked by environmental advocates and concerned Georgians. “This refuge and this mining project are not compatible,” said then-Secretary of the U.S. Interior Bruce Babbitt. Current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has also spoken out against the Twin Pines mine.

Lawmakers are trying to ban mining around Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. Here’s what to know.
The east side of the swamp is largely unforested prairie, dotted with marshy grasses. The water is as low as six inches in parts of the swamp: even a small amount of dewatering can cause excessive drought.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Wouldn’t mining bring jobs to Southeast Georgia? 

Critics of the legislation say it would block job opportunities in an economically depressed part of Georgia. Twin Pines has promised that its mine would bring 150 jobs to Charlton County. “The Twin Pines project would fill a great need,” the Charlton County Development Authority wrote in the Charlton County Herald in 2019.

But the bill’s supporters argue that the mining jobs would be temporary, since work dries up once the minerals have been extracted. And residents are concerned that the mining jobs will go to highly-trained workers from outside the community. “Why would you hire people that don’t have experience?” asked Nixon. “Most likely they’re going to hire people who are already miners.”

Rep. Taylor said she understands the need for jobs. “I come from rural southwest Georgia and we have the same issue,” she said. But she pointed out that tourism around the Okefenokee employs hundreds of people, an industry that would be disrupted by mining near the swamp: “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

What can I do?

If you want to support the Okefenokee Protection Act, contact your state representatives to share your thoughts. To weigh in on the proposed Twin Pines Minerals mine, send a public comment to twinpines.comment@dnr.ga.gov by March 20, 2023.

Most importantly, you can visit Georgia’s natural wonder yourself! The Okefenokee offers a wide array of experiences, including boat tours, canoe trips, camping overnights, fishing, birding, and much more. Local residents say attracting more visitors is key to boosting the economy, as well as growing support for the Okefenokee. “Having a love for something will help you do something about it,” said Nixon.