A Strip Mine Threatens a Natural Treasure in Georgia

One of the hardest things to reconcile about living in the American South is how this region of extraordinary natural beauty, this still-wild place of irreplaceable biodiversity, is mostly in the hands of politicians who will gladly sell it to the highest bidder. It’s hard to reconcile how even land that’s ostensibly protected is never truly safe. And how state regulators charged with protecting it will often look the other way when the highest bidder violates the state’s own environmental regulations.

An egregious example of this pattern is unfolding now in Georgia, where state officials are poised to approve a strip mine on the southeastern edge of the magnificent Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

At 407,000 acres, the Okefenokee is the largest ecologically intact blackwater swamp in North America and the largest National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi River. It hosts or shelters a huge range of plant and animal life, including endangered and threatened species. It is a crucial way station for migratory birds. Designated a Wetland of International Importance under the RAMSAR Convention of 1971, it sequesters an immense amount of carbon in the form of peat.

The proposed mine poses a profound risk to the swamp. Trail Ridge, the site where Twin Pines Minerals will begin operations, is a geological formation that functions as a low earthen dam holding the waters of the Okefenokee in place. The mine would remove the topsoil, dig out the sand pits, separate the titanium from the sand, and then return sand and soil to some approximation of their original place. To manage all this, Twin Pines would need to pump 1.4 million gallons of groundwater a day from the aquifer that serves the Okefenokee.

It doesn’t sound too bad, I guess, unless you know that this destroy-extract-replace plan is effectively mountaintop-removal mining transferred to the watery lowlands. There is no restoring an ecosystem after an assault like that. Aquatic plants and animals die off if waterways become clogged with silt. Drinking water can be contaminated by heavy metals. Ancient land formations and the habitats they underpin are lost forever. The living soil is left barren.

As a species, we have never let ecological necessity get in the way of something we think we need from the land. Thing is, we don’t need this mine. Titanium dioxide is used primarily as pigment in a range of products, including paint and toothpaste. It is not difficult to find in less environmentally sensitive areas.

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