Republicans back Georgia state legislation that aims to block a titanium mine project and protect the Okefenokee Swamp, intervening in perhaps one of the nation’s most high-profile battles over area protection Federal Wetlands.
If the bill becomes law, it would be an unusual environmental victory led by Republicans, who generally favor mining over conservation.
The level of Republican support for environmental action in Georgia is “unprecedented,” said Joshua Marks, environmental attorney at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP in Atlanta.
Five Republicans and a Democrat introduced the bill, HB 1289, this week that would bar Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division from allowing any mines on Trail Ridge, a natural sandy berm hemming the east side of the refuge. Houston-sized Okefenokee National Wildlife Area.
The Okefenokee is a ‘natural wonderland’ and an ‘economic engine’, bringing 650,000 annual visitors to rural southern Georgia, said state Rep. Darlene Taylor (R), principal godmother of the bill.
“So protecting the swamp from threats proposed by mining is as important economically as it is from a conservation perspective,” Taylor said Thursday.
The bill has a chance of becoming law because many of its co-sponsors are Republican state House committee chairs, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a proclamation supporting the swamp, Marks said.
The Okefenokee transcends partisan politics, Marks said.
Republican efforts to avoid draining the swamp are happening in a battleground state where the biologically diverse, carbon-rich Okefenokee has become a national symbol of what’s at stake in the fight over which wetlands and pathways Navigable waters may be protected under the Clean Water Act as waters of the United States, or WOTUS.
“Given the continued uncertainty surrounding wetland law at the federal level, both in the courts and with regulators, it is even more important that the Georgian legislature step into the breach” so that the fights against the wetlands Wetlands don’t recur every time the federal government changes the definition of federally protected waters, Marks said.
Twin Pines Minerals LLC is proposing to build a titanium mine on a ridge site containing wetlands that conservationists believe should be protected under the Clean Water Act. If the mine is allowed, scientists and the US Fish and Wildlife Service fear it could destroy the hydrology of nearby Okefenokee Swamp and possibly dry it out.
Twin Pines is proceeding with mine licensing and construction based on current state law, company chairman Steve Ingle said.
“We can’t speculate on what may or may not happen in the Legislative Assembly,” Ingle said Thursday.
WOTUS versus SCOTUS
The mine and swamp are at the center of a national debate over federal wetlands and waterways, many of which lost Clean Water Act protections in 2020 when the Trump administration reduced the definition of WOTUS.
The rule excluded streams and wetlands not directly connected to navigable waters, including the Trail Ridge wetlands at the mine site.
The Trump-era rule left it up to states to regulate wetlands not considered WOTUS. But federal courts threw out the Trump rule in 2021, and the Biden administration reinstated a 1980s rule that again expanded federal protection of wetlands.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which determined that the Trail Ridge site was outside federal jurisdiction under the Trump administration, said in January it was unlikely to reverse its decision in light of the recent court decisions, leaving it to the Georgian authorities to authorize the mine. .
The Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to the federal definition of WOTUS later this year in Sackett v EPA. Observers largely expect the conservative-majority court to resolve lingering questions about the scope of the Clean Water Act and narrow the definition of federally protected waters, possibly leaving wetlands like those atop the Trail Ridge permanently under state jurisdiction.