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In Georgia, An Old Mining Fight Resurfaces


An environmental story now. South Georgia is home to one of the largest freshwater wetlands in North America, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. There's a new plan to mine for titanium nearby, and environmentalists aren't happy about it. It reminds them of a mining proposal from two decades ago. Back then, the federal government stepped in to stop it.

From member station WABE, Emma Hurt reports that this time around, that's unlikely to happen.


EMMA HURT, BYLINE: To see the Okefenokee, you've really got to get on the water. Chip Campbell takes people out all the time. He and his wife Joy own a boat rental and concession company in the refuge. They actually came to the swamp on their honeymoon. At first, this might not sound like the most romantic spot.

CHIP CAMPBELL: A lot of people, when they come to the swamp, they think that it's going to be this dark, overhung, gloomy kind of place. And there's parts of Okefenokee that have some of that. But a lot of it is like this. It's got - it's very open, sun-splashed.

HURT: There are fields of lily pads and waterlilies, cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, mirror-like black water, stained from the swamp's plants and trees. It's almost totally free of light pollution or the noise of civilization.

CAMPBELL: It'll capture your heart. You know, that black water will get into your blood.

HURT: And, of course, there are the alligators. How many?

CAMPBELL: It's hard to say. You can't get them to fill out a census form, you know? So there's a bunch of them, whether it's 15,000, 20,000, 25,000.

HURT: The swamp's big, too - about half the size of Rhode Island. Most of it's not even accessible. And people's love of the Okefenokee - also big. That's why plans to mine nearby are controversial, like the latest ones submitted this summer to extract titanium and zirconium near the swamp. It's stirred up old emotions from 1997. Then, the chemical company DuPont wanted to open a much bigger mine. After outcries from environmentalists, Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary under President Clinton, visited the Okefenokee. He condemned DuPont's proposal.


BRUCE BABBITT: They're not going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there will be no impacts on the Okefenokee swamp. I don't think this project should go forward for the reasons that I've stated.

HURT: And it didn't. DuPont never even submitted a permit application. After pressure, it donated some of the land to an environmental nonprofit. But Chip Campbell says locals have always known that wouldn't be the end of it. He remembers talking with people at the refuge right after the DuPont proposal.

CAMPBELL: And somebody said, they'll be back.

HURT: Since then, mining has been happening farther north and south of the swamp in Florida and Georgia, and local county commissioners are excited about the new proposal. It's projected to bring hundreds of jobs. But there hasn't been enough information about the environmental cost of those jobs or the project in general, says Teresa Crawford. She grew up near the swamp and spoke after a county commission meeting.

TERESA CRAWFORD: The Okefenokee swamp is just a treasure. We can't make a new one. And if it's destroyed, I mean, it's gone forever. And we need some more facts.

HURT: Facts like a hydrology report, which could model how the mining might affect the water in the swamp. It's not complete yet, and the company's consultant doesn't know exactly when it will be finished. Opponents argue because of the project's location and controversy, the Army Corps of Engineers should require a more rigorous process to vet the project, an environmental impact statement.

Steve Ingle runs Twin Pines, the company with the new mining proposal. He thinks his science is sound and says it's not fair to compare his project to what DuPont wanted to do.

STEVE INGLE: What - 22 years of new technology. It's a more environmentally friendly process to do it now than what it was in '97.

HURT: His proposal is also less than a third of the size of the DuPont one, and there are different federal priorities now, too. The Trump administration has said it wants to find domestic sources for minerals like titanium. They've called it a, quote, "national security priority."

Rena Stricker runs the Georgia River Network. She hopes Georgia's Republican state officials will speak up to the president.

RENA STRICKER: And they may come forward and say, Trump, we love you, but this is not the swamp you want to drain.

HURT: The Army Corps' public comment period ends September 12. For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Folkston, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSH RITTER SONG, "HARRISBURG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.