Georgia governor won’t wade into debate on Okefenokee mining

FOLKSTON, Ga. (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday he’s not wading into the debate over whether a mining company should be allowed to dig for minerals near the edge of the vast wildlife refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp.

For the past two years, Twin Pines Minerals, an Alabama-based company, has been seeking permits to mine for titanium dioxide less than 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from the swamp that’s home of the largest U.S. wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.

The promise of new jobs has won supporters on the refuge’s doorstep in Charlton County, home to about 13,000 near the Georgia-Florida line. But conservationists worry mining could cause irreparable harm to a fragile ecosystem that serves as a habitat for alligators, bald eagles and other protected species.

After meeting Thursday morning with local leaders and business owners in the county seat of Folkston, Kemp declined to take sides on the proposed mine. Permits are still pending before Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.

“I’m going to let the process play out,” Kemp told reporters. “I know you want me to say more, but that’s really about all I have on that.”

A rollback of federal environmental rules under President Donald Trump left the state agency with an outsized role in whether the mine moves forward.

Initially, Twin Pines had also sought a federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. But that agency said in October that it no longer has jurisdiction over wetlands that would be drained or otherwise affected by the project. That’s because the Trump administration limited the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the half-century-old Clean Water Act.

Twin Pines still has five applications pending with Georgia’s environmental agency, including three that deal with regulation of state waters. Agency Director Richard Dunn in January promised a substantive review of the project with a chance for the public to comment before a decision is made. He did not say how long that could take.

Though he generally casts himself as a pro-business Republican who favors cutting regulations, Kemp in 2019 came out in opposition of oil drilling off Georgia coast citing “military concerns, tourism concerns.” He supported drilling elsewhere off the U.S. coast.

Kemp said he doesn’t see parallels between his concerns about drilling off Georgia and the proposed mine near the Okefenokee.

“There’s a lot of differences in those two things,” the governor said. “You’re talking about a specific project that’s under review versus an idea that never went anywhere.”

Nobody in the crowd of about 50 people who showed up for Kemp’s roundtable with the local chamber of commerce asked him about the mining proposal.

Michael Lusk, who manages the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, told Kemp the refuge attracts about 600,000 tourists per year and invited the governor to pay a visit. He didn’t mention the mining plan.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle, who has long insisted his mine would have a negligible impact on the swamp, sat quietly in a back corner.