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Okefenokee tug-o-war is long way from over

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Okefenokee tug-o-war is long way from over

Jan 25, 2023 | 5:46 pm ET
By Dink Nesmith
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Okefenokee tug-o-war is long way from over
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Guest columnist Dink NeSmith is on board with the sentiments of a group from the Suwanee Riverkeeper that gathered for an August 2019 Twin Pines public information meeting in Folkston. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The opposing sides are not barefoot on Jekyll Island’s beach, but there’s a definite line drawn in the sand. Feet are dug in, and muscles are straining. On one side is an Alabama mining company and its fleet of high-powered lobbyists. Pulling the other way are millions of nature-loving Georgians who want to thwart Twin Pines Minerals from strip-mining near the Okefenokee Swamp.

This tug-o-war has been off and on for years. First it was Dupont that lusted for what’s beneath Trail Ridge. But in the 1990s, the giant corporation dropped the rope and walked away. Chalk a win for the environs of America’s largest blackwater swamp and for those who know that the Okefenokee is both fragile and irreplaceable.

Case closed?

Not hardly.

Enter Twin Pines in 2019. The firm picked up the rope and started tugging. The much-coveted titanium-dioxide and zircon deposits beneath the sands of Trail Ridge are magnets that attract speculators such as Twins Pines. I understand that. The old rule still dictates, “Follow the money, and you’ll find the root of the motive(s).” There are millions of dollars to be made from the mines.

I also understand that the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure, one that deserves special protection. The majority of the 684-square-mile swamp is in Georgia. And polls have shown that nearly 70% of Georgians don’t want the Okefenokee endangered in any way. I am with the majority. 

Most of Charlton County’s citizens would probably disagree. While they love having the Okefenokee in their backyard, their economy needs a boost. They are starved for more and better-paying jobs. I understand that. Good-paying jobs can cure a multitude of any community’s ills. 

But what’s to say Charlton County residents will take home most of those Twin Pines paychecks? The proposed mine site is just as close—or closer—to hungry rural Floridians. And in Florida, there is no state income tax. That’s one reason Charlton County is challenged to compete for new industry with its across-the-state-line neighbors.

But Georgia has an ace in its pocket. Our economic-development team is—I believe—the best in America. Look at the billions of dollars being invested here and the tens of thousands of new jobs blossoming in the Peach State. 

Why not have a rural development strike force that can laser in on the Charlton counties of Georgia? With enough bright minds, willpower and sufficient investment, oxygen can be pumped into the gasping communities that are—for the most part—on life support.

Gov. Brian Kemp has led Georgia to be the envy of most of the other 49 states. I applaud him and his administration. They have demonstrated that the “Georgia Way” is the winning way. Georgia is repeatedly honored as the best state in which to do business. However, as the saying goes, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Charlton County isn’t Georgia’s only weak economic link, but it’s an ideal target for this much-needed initiative.

Now back to the to-mine or not-to-mine tug-o-war. 

Steve Ingle, president of Twin Pines, tugs back by refuting “the absurdity of allegations” that his mines will drain the swamp or harm it. On the other end of the rope are UGA scientists, other experts, conservationists and people same as me who are tugging with facts that say, “Don’t do it.” Besides the environmental risks, millions of ecotourism dollars should not be jeopardized, either. 

How do you feel about this? 

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has opened a 60-day public-comment period at [email protected]. The EPD is also hosting virtual public hearings on Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. 

Here’s how I feel. 

I trust UGA scientists more than Twin Pines. But no matter which side wins, the tug-o-war won’t be over until the legal wrangling is done. Meanwhile, I’m not turning loose of the not-to-mine end of the rope.