The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump rule eases effort to strip-mine near Okefenokee Swamp

Cypress trees line the banks of the Suwannee Canal, the main water entrance into the Okefenokee Swamp.
Cypress trees line the banks of the Suwannee Canal, the main water entrance into the Okefenokee Swamp. (Hal Beral/VWPics/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

When an Alabama company called Twin Pines Minerals proposed to strip-mine for titanium just outside the fragile Okefe­nokee Swamp, environmental groups and even federal agencies went up in arms.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator said it would “have a substantial and unacceptable impact.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also opposed mining on the ­edges of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. And Patricia Griffin, an Atlanta resident who made one of more than 60,000 public comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that “if this permit is approved, it will be the death of the most beautiful place on Earth.”

But a new regulation imposed by the Trump administration in its final months in office could give a boost to the titanium mine proposal and ensure that weaker environmental protections get locked in before the Biden administration takes office.

That regulation, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, went into effect June 22, redefining wetlands, tributaries and small ponds so that most builders and mining companies will no longer need federal permits or environmental impact statements. Now, 45 million acres of wetlands, an area bigger than the state of Florida, will no longer fall under federal protections.

The fate of the Twin Pines project, which now lies in the hands of state regulators, remains in question. But the proposal is likely to be the first in a wave of efforts to commercially develop wetlands and tributaries across the nation. And with environmental groups threatening legal action, it will probably offer the first important test of the Trump administration’s new rule in court.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has already filed suit, called the regulation “the biggest rollback in clean water protections in the 47 years since the Clean Water Act became law.”

After extensive scrutiny of the Twin Pines mining proposal, the Army Corps decided that the Trump administration’s new, weaker environmental regulation meant the corps lacked jurisdiction over 376 acres of land within the mining site. The Army Corps said Twin Pines Minerals could proceed with its project once it gets permits from state agencies.

Geoffrey R. Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the weakened regulation has been in the pipeline since President Trump took office. It was finally unveiled at a January meeting of the National Association of Home Builders in Las Vegas. “That’s why this new rule exists,” Gisler said. “It was at the behest of the mining industry and home builders.”

The rollback is just one of about 125 environmental protections weakened by Trump, The Washington Post previously reported.

The regulation meshes with Trump’s desire to promote domestic mining of rare-earth minerals, including titanium, which is a strong, lightweight mineral used to build everything from missiles and jet planes to orthopedics and consumer electronics. The Georgia mine will use the titanium to make pigments that whiten cosmetics, paint and other consumer products.

Josh Marks, an Atlanta lawyer who as a Sierra Club organizer in the late 1990s helped defeat an earlier mining proposal, said this mine would devastate a national treasure and called on Georgia’s U.S. senators to take a stand against the project.

“Senator Perdue has repeatedly stated he wanted to ‘drain the swamp’ in D.C.,” said Marks, who supports Republican Sen. David Perdue’s Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, in Georgia’s upcoming runoff election. But Perdue hasn’t opposed “a mining company [that] is threatening to drain an actual swamp, a place hugely important to Georgia’s environment and economy.”

Steven Ingle, president of Twin Pines Minerals, said the mine would create jobs in southern Georgia without damaging Okefenokee, the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.

“No one was more skeptical than I because it is my job to ensure the investment will be secure and the Okefenokee will remain unharmed,” Ingle said in an email passed through an ­Atlanta-based firm called Cookerly Public Relations. “We’ve been paying a score or more of top environmental engineers to conduct every possible test.”

Twin Pines Minerals has also been paying two lobbying firms to help smooth the way. Ingle and another executive, Raymon Bean, have made the maximum allowable contributions to Perdue’s primary and general senatorial campaigns and have met with the senator and his staff to make their case.

That worries opponents, who say the environmental record of another company managed by Bean has a checkered history. Georgia Renewable Power, which is owned by a company where Ingle has served as an officer, operates wood-fired power plants in two rural Georgia counties. It has paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines after multiple air and water pollution violations. Residents have complained about ash dumping, fish kills and the burning of railroad ties containing toxic creosote, or coal tar.

In letters to Georgia lawmakers and Gov. Brian Kemp (R), residents who live near Georgia Renewable Power plants have described devastation to their quality of life after the company promised clean power.

“The smell will sometimes get in our house, it gives me a headache and I cough more, it hurts my wife’s chest and burns her eyes,” wrote Ted Fowler, a resident of Colbert, Ga. “If GRP continues burning railroad ties our lives will be shortened if not already shortened.”

'Like no other place on Earth'

About a century ago, the Georgia swamp definitely needed rescuing. In 1909, loggers began cutting down countless cypress, pine and red bay trees in the Okefenokee. To save it, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 created the 700-square-mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, now home to hundreds of species including black bears, the sandhill crane and the gopher tortoise.

Designated a national natural landmark in 1974, the refuge covers an area more than half the size of Rhode Island. Unlike the Everglades, the Okefenokee has not been disturbed by industry or agriculture for decades.

One distinctive feature of the Okefenokee is that it’s shaped like a bowl, and most of it is depressed. What helps keep the shallow water inside is the Trail Ridge, which runs along the eastern side of the swamp and acts like a dam. Poke a hole in the ridge, like a break in the rim of a bowl, and water will leak out. That’s a key part of the area Twin Pines Minerals wants to mine.

In the 1990s, DuPont de Nemours sought to mine titanium in a similar area also along the eastern side of the swamp. After flying in a helicopter over the DuPont site, President Bill Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, said the company’s project was “not compatible” with the neighboring swamp. In the face of an outcry from environmental groups and other stakeholders, the company abandoned the project and gave much of the land it had purchased to the nonprofit Conservation Fund.

Among those who opposed the DuPont project was Marks’s ­father-in-law, a Georgia native who founded a group called ­Dentists Defending the Swamp, which collected petition signatures from patients. Marks said he promised his father-in-law, who died in April, that he would carry on the fight. “It’s thus very personal for me,” Marks said.

Last year on July 12, Twin Pines Minerals filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers to open a 12,000-acre titanium mine, stripping an average of 25 to 50 feet off the land’s surface.

The mine would creep as close as 400 feet from the edge of the swamp refuge, environmentalists said. Ingle said the distance would be nearly three miles in a later, scaled-down plan.

But he acknowledged in his email that the Trail Ridge was a key prospect, rich in heavy minerals including titanium, zircon, rutile and leucoxene. The company planned to dig 5,000-square-foot chunks from the ridge.

In August last year, when the Army Corps held public hearings, opposition poured in from all directions.

“I am absolutely opposed to the idea that you can surface-mine along the Trail Ridge,” Babbitt said in an interview. He said the Twin Pines Minerals plan had “exactly the same set of problems” he encountered with DuPont two decades ago.

Even Georgia’s state regulators were opposed. Stephen C. Wiedl, wetlands manager of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, complained that the description of stream impacts was “confusing,” that “large areas are left un-reclaimed for long periods of time” and that the effect of a 100-foot-wide strip mine was “not truly a temporary impact” as claimed by the company.

“So substantial, so massive, so transformative is the effect to wetlands contemplated at the Twin Pines site that you no longer have in place the original wetland to be impacted,” Wiedl said in a letter to the Army Corps.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife warned that the mining plan could lower water levels in the Okefenokee Swamp, exposing peat and increasing the chances of fire. Environmental groups said an impact statement was required.

“The Okefenokee is like no other place on earth,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Mining and money

Facing opposition, Twin Pines Minerals did what so many companies do: turn to lobbying firms. It enlisted the help of two, ultimately paying them about $300,000.

One was Potomac South, where Ashton Harper worked.

His brother, Tyler Harper (R), is a strongly conservative state senator and the chairman of the committee on natural resources and the environment, which has oversight over state agencies and their budgets.

Neither of the Harper brothers answered requests for comment.

Through mid-2020, Twin Pines Minerals paid Potomac South $85,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Twin Pines Minerals also retained Cornerstone Government Affairs, a Washington lobbying firm, which it paid $230,000. Its main lobbyist is Louie Perry III. Perry gave Perdue $1,000 in 2019, the day Twin Pines Minerals asked the Army Corps for permission to dump dredged materials into navigable waters. Perry gave another $1,000 the day before Twin Pines Minerals filed for a revised permit application in 2020.

“Cornerstone and Potomac South have been helpful with our numerous meetings with local, state and national elected officials,” Ingle said in the email to The Post. He said his company has also met with “numerous” environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, and has “maintained an open dialogue with several.”

“This is not a project about which we intend to be secretive or cordon off,” Ingle said.

But the company took steps to reduce friction. In February, it withdrew its proposal and, a month later, submitted a much smaller one that Ingle called a “demonstration” project.

Ingle also made political contributions to key politicians, a common practiceamong companies trying to win approval for their projects.

On March 19, 2019, before any announcement of the project, Ingle and Bean each wrote two $2,800 checks to Perdue, one pair for the primary and the other pair for the general election still 1 1/2 years away.

During 2018 and 2019, Twin Pines Minerals gave campaign contributions to a variety of state officials, too. Ingle sent a pair of contributions totaling $4,500 to the campaign committee for Kemp.

Twin Pines Minerals has reached out to Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), each of whose aides checked in on the progress of permits needed from the Army Corps of Engineers, according to an internal Army Corps email.

A spokeswoman for Loeffler declined to comment. The Army Corps also declined to comment.

“Senator Perdue’s office receives regular updates on Twin Pines, as well as many other Army Corps projects throughout Georgia, on behalf of our constituents,” Perdue spokesperson Jenni Sweat said in an email to The Post.

“Twin Pines presents an economic development opportunity,” Sweat said. “We will continue to track its progress.”

Watering down federal rules

In mid-October, when the Army Corps stepped aside, it was a big win for Twin Pines Minerals. The Army Corps said no federal permit was needed because it lacked jurisdiction over most of the proposed mining area. It gave Twin Pines Minerals the green light on 600 acres.

It was also a win for the Trump administration’s push to undercut the old “Waters of the United States” rule that had been carefully defined by then-Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a divided Supreme Court case in 2006. Kennedy said the federal government could regulate a body of water that possesses a “significant nexus” to traditionally navigable waters. That was codified further in a 2015 Obama administration rule.

The Trump administration replaced that with its own Navigable Waters Rule, which scaled back limitations on the development of ponds, wetlands and small tributaries. It went into effect in 49 states after a U.S. district court in Colorado issued a stay. Critics say that among other things, the Trump regulation does not take into account climate change, which could alter historical temperature and hydrology used to measure the ebb and flow of wetlands.

Ingle said the costly lobbying campaign didn’t affect the EPA or Army Corps. “It would be highly inaccurate to assert that we somehow impacted the decisions two separate federal agencies made,” Ingle said.

But for now, the battle over the mine continues. Twin Pines Minerals is seeking five permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for surface water, surface mining and groundwater withdrawal, says Bill Sapp, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. And the demanding letters to the Army Corps from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division suggest that Twin Pines Minerals isn’t in the clear yet.

Recalling DuPont’s withdrawal years ago, Christian Hunt, a program representative at Defenders of Wildlife, said that “at the time, it created this precedent for the mining industry. Nobody thought that any company would have the audacity again.”