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Army Corps blocks strip mine near Okefenokee wetlands after opposition

A mine was proposed at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp's vast wildlife refuge. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)
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The Army Corps of Engineers is blocking a proposed strip mine for titanium set outside the fragile Okefe­nokee Swamp in Georgia, reversing an earlier decision, after the project drew opposition from environmental groups and political leaders.

Environmentalists and federal agencies had previously cited the harm that the mine would inflict on the wetlands. But after the Trump administration rolled back various regulations, millions of acres of wetlands were no longer subject to federal environmental oversight.

Those rules, however, were thrown out by a federal judge last year, affording renewed protections to streams, marshes and wetlands.

The Army Corps, a unit of the military, said in a memo Friday that the previous decision allowing the project to move ahead was no longer valid because the corps had failed to properly consult with tribal stakeholders.

Trump rule eases effort to strip-mine near Okefenokee Swamp

The Army Corps decision came after Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) sought to block the proposed mine, focusing on threats to Okefenokee’s environmental, cultural and economic integrity.

“For the last year, I’ve fought relentlessly to protect the Okefenokee from destruction,” he said in a statement Saturday to The Washington Post, adding, “I am pleased to announce the restoration of protection for this wildlife refuge and its surrounding wetlands.”

The Alabama company behind the proposal, Twin Pines Minerals, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On the company’s website, Twin Pines claims that its proposed mining activities “will not impact the Okefenokee Swamp.”

The company also touts that the planned mine would “provide a significant boost to the local and regional economy.”

The mining project aims to extract titanium and zirconium from the land by removing the minerals and then replacing the soil to previous elevations and contours. The project could last up to 20 years, according to the company.

Federal judge throws out Trump administration rule allowing the draining and filling of streams, marshes and wetlands

The Army Corps said the backers of the Twin Pines project have the option to request a new review process, according to the memo. But experts said a subsequent review would take place under more robust Biden administration rules.

As one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has an average of 300,000 visitors a year and thousands of overnight campers along its trails.

Environmental groups applauded the reversal.

“We are talking about a massive industrial mining complex along the edge of the country’s largest, intact blackwater wetland of significance," said Christian Hunt, Southeast representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “Essentially this decision is affording this project a level of review that’s commensurate with the value of the resources at stake.”

Unlike most wetlands in the United States, which groups are working to restore, Okefenokee is pristine, Hunt added, highlighting the urgency to protect it before it might be damaged.

“We celebrate the Biden administration’s restoration of protections to nearly 400 acres of wetlands that sit at the doorstep of the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the most celebrated natural resources in the world,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Defense Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center.