ATLANTA – Supporters of legislation banning mining near the Okefenokee Swamp held a news conference at the Georgia Capitol Monday to urge Georgia lawmakers to pass the measure.
“The threat of mining is very real,” said Alice Miller-Keyes, vice president of coastal conservation for the Brunswick-based environmental organization 100 Miles. “House Bill 71 offers some hope of protection.”
The bill was introduced last year and enjoys the backing of 94 of the 180 House members. But it has yet to gain a committee vote in the House let alone reach the floor.
“The Okefenokee Protection Act will forever protect the swamp and (Trail) Ridge,” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, the bill’s chief sponsor.
Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals is seeking state permits to mine titanium dioxide on Trail Ridge, the Okefenokee’s eastern hydrologic boundary.
While company executives have said the proposed mine would not harm the swamp, scientific studies have concluded it would significantly damage one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in North America by drawing down its water level and increasing the risk of drought and fires.
The bill’s supporters said Monday its chances for passage have improved since last year’s legislative session. For one thing, the National Park Service announced last September it is asking officials at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to prepare a draft nomination for the Okefenokee to become the 25th UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States.
Also, 14 cities and counties across South Georgia have passed resolutions supporting Turner’s bill.
Supporters also pointed to the Okefenokee Swamp’s contribution to the region’s economy from the growing ecotourism business. An estimate in an article published by Georgia Trend magazine put the swamp’s annual economic impact at $64.7 million, including 700 jobs.
“The Okefenokee is Mother Nature at its best,” retired teacher Betty Benner of Wayne County said Monday. “(But) mining poses a threat to the Okefenokee becoming a World Heritage Site.”
Taylor said her bill wouldn’t prevent the Twin Pines mine from opening because its permit applications have already been submitted. But she said the measure would protect the swamp from future mining projects.