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Published on April 03, 2024
Georgia Legislative Efforts to Protect Okefenokee Swamp Stall as EPD Considers Mining PermitsSource: Wikipedia/Ryan Hagerty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commonsh

Despite an active legislative session and considerable debate, no bills targeting the preservation of Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp made it through to law this year. The much-talked-about House Bill 71, known as the Okefenokee Protection Act, although it had garnered the support of over half of the House, it ultimately failed in committee. Additionally, a second attempt at enacting a 3-year halt on certain types of mining near the swamp, HB 1338, spun its wheels in the Senate and did not pass on the session's final day.

However, the future holds more for the famed swamp. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is closing the window for public comments on April 9 regarding the remaining permits sought by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals. As reported by WABE, a previous public comment video call saw a barrage of hours-long testimonies ranging from local residents discussing economic ramifications to former EPD employees criticizing the agency's scientific rigor.

Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, said, "In the past, they’ve been able to depend on — standard operation procedure has always been — to depend on the US Army Corps of Engineers to weigh the facts and to do the due diligence. And so if they could pass that, then they can pass the EPDs surface mining act components." Her remarks, captured by WABE, suggest Twin Pines Minerals' application might be unprecedented in context.

Sifting through the legal sediment, the controversy also involved the federal government particularly in the hot summer of 2022. A settled lawsuit with Twin Pines Minerals determined there to be no federally protected wetlands at the proposed mining site – a consequence of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, instituted under the Trump administration, that stripped back protections for wetlands previously considered federally protected. Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) maintains it has federal water rights, especially due to potential impacts on the wildlife refuge.

In a demand for deeper analysis, the USFWS sent a January missive to the EPD asking for cooperation to quantify the water necessary to support the National Wildlife Refuge’s purpose. According to WABE, Michael Lusk, the refuge manager at the Okefenokee, spoke on behalf of the agency during the public comment video meeting, stating, "The concerns expressed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have to date not been adequately addressed by the committee and revealed shortcomings in the modeling used to predict impacts to the refuge." In response, the EPD and the Fish & Wildlife Service sat down for a discussion on February 12, confirming attempts at interagency collaboration on the contentious issue.