Murky Issue?

Don’t blow up the Okefenokee Swamp. Are the heavy minerals really worth it?

Ben Young Publisher Georgia Trend with a tie and jacket and red backgroundThis is the conclusion I’ve reached after years of studying the issue, and I hope it’s not too late for me to weigh in. I more or less had decided that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division would likely rule against the project proposed for the edge of the swamp that would allow for heavy mineral sands mining, an extensive process that could drain the swamp or even cause it to explode.

But now that it’s such a hot-button issue that even The Wall Street Journal felt compelled to weigh in, I find myself saying “uh-oh.” The issue has become political – another symbol of environmentalists blocking economic development in a poor community that needs the jobs.

The truth is more nuanced. But it is a classic example of how some Georgia communities will take any kind of economic activity they can get, whether it’s a private prison or a landfill for out-of-state garbage, in order to pay the bills. However, for communities adjoining the Georgia coast, there is good reason to hold out. As the population of coastal Georgia keeps booming with growth in Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties, tourism – and awareness of beautiful sites like Okefenokee – will only increase as well.

The mining site actually sits between the swamp and other popular tourist sites like Brunswick, Jacksonville and Jekyll Island.

The mining site actually sits between the swamp and other popular tourist sites like Brunswick, Jacksonville and Jekyll Island. Many in the region see the economic potential of a coordinated effort to grow visitation to the Okefenokee, which covers nearly half a million acres in Georgia.

Heavy sand mining is generally out of favor because of risks like riverbank collapse. (Think offshore drilling for oil.) The United States provides around 4% of the world’s titanium. Unlike demand for other minerals, demand for titanium isn’t expected to become an issue as the world switches to electric vehicles. In other words, this isn’t something that the nation or Georgia really needs.

Georgia Trend News On SwampThat’s not to say that this part of Georgia doesn’t need the 400 jobs the mining operation promises. But are these jobs permanent? Will the sands eventually run out of minerals, leaving the site vacant? Will the site location inhibit the ability for the tourism economy to connect with visitors from the coast?

More importantly, are the jobs worth the risk to the swamp itself? The mining company originally wanted 12,000 acres, and when ordered to fund an additional impact study by a third party (in other words, a study by someone not cherry-picked by the company to downplay the impact threat), it withdrew and submitted a new plan for a 773-acre “demonstration site.” This latest application will naturally have less impact on the swamp. But will the company stop there or keep reusing this tactic to eventually acquire the 12,000 acres it originally sought?

The threat to the area’s tourism economy, if the swamp was negatively impacted by mining activity, is hard to overstate. We’re talking more than half a million visitors each year, $64.7 million in economic impact and 700 jobs. The swamp extends beyond Charlton County, where the site has been proposed, into Ware, Brantley and Clinch counties.

The beauty of this region is also hard to exaggerate. Like the marshlands to the east, it has been a part of every kid’s awareness of our natural resources for generations. Okefenokee Joe taught countless folks on GPTV to be “swamp wise.” Once experienced, it becomes an inextricable part of our heritage.

Supporting hundreds of species, many endangered, the Okefenokee also stores 401 million cubic meters of peat, which has been built up from 6,500 years of discarded plant material. Peatlands cover only 3% of the world’s land area, but store more than twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. If peatlands are allowed to dry, the carbon that they store will be released into the atmosphere – so imagine 95 million tons of carbon dioxide released over Southeast Georgia. It could oxidize, but it could also catch fire. Exposing the peat, says Georgia River Network Executive Director Rena Ann Peck, could turn the site from a carbon sequestration bank into a “carbon bomb.”

The situation has prompted American Rivers to name the Okefenokee one of America’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers for 2023, the national equivalent of the Georgia River Network’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list. If approved, the fight will drag out and cost millions. Hopefully the EPD will save all this trouble over what should be an easy decision.

Categories: From the Publisher, Opinions