Huge Strip-Mine Planned for Okefenokee Swamp

The Anarchives (tao@lglobal.com)
Mon, 18 Nov 1996 20:28:00 +0000 (GMT)


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 96 11:26:24 CST
From: Mark Graffis <ab758@virgin.usvi.net>
To: tao@LGLOBAL.COM
Subject: Huge Strip-Mine Planned for Okefenokee Swamp

FOLKSTON, Ga. (Nov 15, 1996 11:18 a.m. EST) -- The DuPont Co. is
forging ahead with plans for a massive strip mining operation along
the entire eastern edge of the famed Okefenokee Swamp, triggering
fears that the digging may irreparably damage one of the world's large
st and purest freshwater wetlands.

DuPont has bought or leased more than 38,000 acres of piney woods from
timber companies during the past few years to mine a sandy ridge next
to the Okefenokee for titanium dioxide, a shiny white mineral used to
make paper, paint, plastic and hundreds of other products.

The company plans to apply for state and federal environmental permits
early next year. Mining would start in 2002 and last for 40 to 50
years.

DuPont officials have promised to take whatever steps necessary to
protect the Okefenokee. But several environmental groups are opposing
the mining, saying that it could affect the water table and ruin the
swamp and surrounding wetlands.

In addition to environmental concerns, DuPont's proposal is certain to
revive arguments over a mineral severance tax in Georgia. Although
Georgia is one of the nation's leading producers of industrial
minerals, it is one of only a handful of states that does not impose a
levy on minerals gouged from its soil by international mining
conglomerates.

Proponents of the tax say that Georgia, which produces more than $1.5
billion worth of minerals, mostly kaolin, each year, is missing out on
tens of milions of dollars annually because it refuses to impose a
mineral severance tax. Opponents of the tax, including Gov. Zell
Miller, say it is bad for business.

Misgivings about DuPont's proposal to mine next to the Okefenokee also
mirrors concerns in other parts of the nation about the government's
stewardship of public lands -- and how far the government should go in
protecting wildlife refuges, national parks and other sensitive areas
from mining, logging and other potentially damaging activities just
outside the lands' boundaries.

President Clinton stepped into the fray in August, when he proposed
killing a gold mining project just outside Yellowstone National Park
in Wyoming. Environmentalists said toxic wastewater from the mine
would ruin Yellowstone.

Clinton proposed a land swap, in which the Toronto-based Crown Butte
Mines Inc. would give up its land next to Yellowstone in exchange for
federal lands elsewhere. Details are still being worked out.

DuPont's plans for mining titanium dioxide next to the Okefenokee
Swamp call for bringing in huge dredges that would scoop out dozens of
15-acre pits up to 50 feet deep along the sandy ridge known as Trail
Ridge, which runs along the swamp's eastern boundary. The ridge serves
as a natural dam that keeps water in the swamp.

After mining, the scarred land would be reclaimed. Depending on
whether the original land was forest or wetland, it would be planted
and re- established accordingly, said Jon Samborski, spokesman for
E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.

The property acquired by the company is roughly 30 miles long and
three miles wide and adjoins the 396,000-acre Okefenokee National
Wildlife Refuge, one of the crown jewels of the nation's refuge
system. The refuge's administration building now sits on a parcel of
DuPont property, which

the company leases to the federal government.

Samborski said the entire acreage DuPont has acquired won't be mined.
Some of it will serve as a buffer. However, company officials have not
yet determined how many thousands of acres will be strip mined.

Environmentalists and wildlife officials fear the mining will destroy
portions of Trail Ridge and alter water flow in the swamp. The ridge
runs as close as a few hundred yards to the Okefenokee's boundary.

"You go messing with Trail Ridge, and you're messing with the life of
the Okefenokee," said Bill Cribbs, a Valdosta biologist who is a
leading expert on the Okefenokee.

Rising gently above the otherwise table-flat expanse surrounding the
swamp, the ridge is the remnant of an ancient seashore. Millions of
years ago, rivers flowing to the former seashore deposited a rich lode
of minerals, including sands bearing titanium dioxide. Similar
processes created the rich kaolin deposits in Middle Georgia.

Trail Ridge is a major reason the Okefenokee exists.

The swamp is a vast bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that
was once part of the ocean floor. The ridge, rising nearly 150 feet
above sea level, also causes water to flow into the swamp, which lies
103 to 128 feet above sea level.

Samborski says DuPont recognizes the "ecological importance" of the
Okefenokee, and the company understands that the public will have
concerns.

"From the outset of our proposal, DuPont has sought to foster open and
honest dialogue with regulatory agencies, conservation groups and the
public regarding our project," Samborski said. He said DuPont has been
mining titanium dioxide in North Florida more than 40 years without
problems.

But Judy Jennings, a Savannah resident and Georgia Sierra Club member
who is monitoring DuPont's plans, said DuPont has not convinced her
that the project would be safe for the swamp.

"We are opposing this project: there are so many risks and so many
unknowns," she said.

Becky Shortland, vice president of coastal programs for the Georgia
Conservancy, said her group hasn't decided whether to oppose the
mining.

"We can't say what the impact will be, but the current Florida
operations are not located next to Okefenokee National Wildlife
Refuge," Shortland said. "We can't take a position until we get all
the facts, but we can clearly state that we have concerns."

That stance is similar to the one taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (FWS), which manages the vast Okefenokee refuge. "When
somebody comes in and says they will strip mine, we are quite
naturally going to be concerned," said Jim Burkhart, the refuge's
ranger supervisor.

Environmentalists, FWS officials, geologists and others say the mining
could destroy wetlands adjacent to the swamp, disrupt natural drainage
systems on the surface and alter the flow of groundwater. If this
happens, they say, water levels and the swamp's environment will be
irrevocably damaged.

They have other worries:

-- Several endangered species in the swamp -- including the
red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake and wood stork -- could be
directly affected by the mining, from noise, loss of habitat and
pollution caused by the mining.

-- The mining process may release contaminants -- including
herbicides, insecticides, mercury and iron -- that may now be in the
soil. Releases or spills of oil, grease and hydraulic fluids from
mining equipment also could pollute the swamp.

-- Stormwater running off the mine site could increase siltation in
streams leading away from the mine, degrading water quality in the
Okefenokee and in the nearby St Marys River.

-- Dust, smoke and soot from clearing the land for mining could impair
air quality around the swamp, and noise and nighttime floodlights from
the mining operations could affect wildlife and visitors' enjoyment of
the refuge.

-- The open-pit mines, settling ponds and stormwater dikes from the
mining at the entrance to the refuge could create a visual blight.

The vast Okefenokee encompasses about 438,000 acres in Charlton, Ware
and Clinch counties in deep South Georgia and Baker County in Florida.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to
preserve the swamp. The refuge now includes 396,000 acres.

Congress in 1974 designated 354,000 acres of the refuge as a National
Wilderness Area, which allows only minimal human activity. Next to the
Everglades in Florida, the Okefenokee is now the second largest
wilderness area in the South.

A new book by the National Geographic Society, "Last Wild Places,"
says that the Okefenokee is one of the oldest, most pristine and
well-preserved swamps in North America -- "one of the world's last
great wild places." It is also one of the most famous, known worldwide
as the home of the comic strip character Pogo.

Two major rivers begin in the swamp: the St. Marys, which empties into
the Atlantic Ocean; and the Suwanee, which empties into the Gulf of
Mexico.

The swamp contains numerous islands and lakes, along with vast areas
of nonforested terrain. Prairies, or expanses of freshwater marshes,
cover about 60,000 acres of the swamp, mostly on the eastern side
where DuPont plans to mine.

DuPont is not the first company to seek riches from the Okefenokee.
The Hebard Cypress Co. began logging operations in 1909 after a
railroad was built at the swamp's western edge. More than 431 million
board feet of timber were removed from the Okefenokee by 1927, when
logging ceased.

Another company's plan to drain and log the Okefenokee in 1891 almost
caused the swamp to go dry, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service
brochure. The Suwanee Canal Co., led by Harry Jackson, an Atlanta
lawyer, expected to make millions of dollars from the sale of timber
and from fertile crop lands that would be exposed once the swamp was
drained.

The company's plan called for the swamp to be drained through Trail
Ridge to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the St. Marys River. But the
project was abandoned when it proved prohibitively costly and Jackson
died from a heart attack.

Samborski, the DuPont spokesman, says the company is conducting
extensive groundwater studies in the Trail Ridge area to determine the
movement of water in and around the swamp, and how mining might affect
that flow. State and federal officails say they have held several
"preliminary meetings" with DuPont on the water studies and other
issues that the company may have to address.

"We can't make a determination about the mining until we see the
permit applications," said John Taylor, head of the land protection
branch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). He said
the permit applications must contain details on the proposed mining.

If DuPont obtains those permits, it would be free to begin mining.
Taylor said public hearings will be held before the state makes a
decision whether to grant or deny the permits. Federal officials say
they have not determined whether the company must conduct an extensive
environmental impact statement.

DuPont needs four major permits:

-- A groundwater withdrawal permit from EPD because the mining and
titanium dioxide processing will require thousands -- perhaps millions
-- of gallons of water per day.

-- A toxic discharge permit from EPD because the company will dump
pollutants into streams.

-- A surface mining permit from EPD.

-- A "dredge and fill" permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
because the mining process will require settling ponds for wastes in
addition to the open pits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has veto power over the
corps' permits, but the agency has rarely used that power to override
a corps decision. The EPA did veto a corps permit to build a lake near
Alma in the 1980's because the agency determined the project would
destroy wildlife habitat. The decision touched off a protracted legal
battle, but, in the end, the EPA prevailed.

While the permits are designed to ensure that the environment is
protected from mining and other industrial activities,
enironmentalists say Georgia's surface mining law and noncoastal
wetland protection regulations are too weak to guarantee such
protection.

The EPD's surface mining office, which regulates the state's $1.5
billion mining industry, is down to a handful of workers. And the
agency's 1997 budget proposals call for transferring three positions
in the office to other areas in EPD, leaving no one to make sure that
mining companies are complying with mining and land reclamation
regulations.

Instead, the companies will be allowed to audit themselves, says
Taylor.

Samborski says DuPont will remove one foot of topsoil from areas to be
mined and store it for reclamation. Georgia's law does not require
setting aside topsoil.

Despite DuPont's reassurances, Cribbs, the Valdosta biologist, says he
has already made up his mind about the mining: "I am vehemently
opposed to it. There are other places where they can mine this stuff.
Why don't they leave something as beautiful and peaceful and important
as the Okefenokee alone?"