Skip to content Skip to footer

Georgia Swamp Defenders Are Resisting Mining in Endangered Okefenokee Wetlands

Locals are fighting a proposed titanium mine threatening the swamp’s endangered species and carbon-capturing processes.

Rev. Antwon Nixon poses for a portrait on March 14, 2024, in Folkston, Georgia. Nixon was born and raised in Folkston and has become an advocate for protecting the Okefenokee Swamp in recent years.

Gerod Ford inherited his love of swampland from his grandmother, who grew up visiting Florida’s wetlands. She would later tell her grandchildren that “the symbiosis of the swamp is what we strive for as a community.” After moving to Georgia, Ford said his grandmother was ecstatic to learn about the Okefenokee Swamp, the nation’s largest blackwater swamp and the home to several endangered species. Her age and health in recent years have prevented her from traveling, and Ford says her one wish is to visit the swamp one last time before she passes.

“I don’t have the heart to tell her that she may not get that chance again,” Ford said at a public meeting hosted by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division this month.

The EPD called the March 5 meeting to collect comments from speakers like Ford on the topic of Twin Pines Minerals’ proposed mining operation less than 3 miles from the Okefenokee Swamp. The LLC plans to extract titanium dioxide (a compound commonly used to whiten products like toothpaste) from Trail Ridge, a long stretch of sand that borders the swamp.

Nearly 100 members of the public spoke at that meeting, among them former EPD and EPA employees. Speakers shared concerns about the project, pointing to evidence that the mine could jeopardize the swamp’s water levels and its ability to capture greenhouse gases.

No speakers said they were in favor of the mine, and most urged the public to submit comments about the project before the April 9 deadline.

Reverend Antwon Nixon lives in Folkston, Georgia, a 15-minute drive from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. He first learned about the Trail Ridge mine at a 2021 Juneteenth celebration, when Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center Bill Sapp brought a sign advocating for the protection of the Okefenokee.

“I had heard nothing about it,” Nixon said. “I lived just a couple of miles from the swamp.”

Sapp told Nixon about the Okefenokee Protection Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 organizations committed to the preservation of the swamp.

One of these organizations is One Hundred Miles, a nonprofit that seeks to protect Georgia’s coast. One Hundred Miles Coastal Planning Advocate Hannah Mendillo said mining on Trail Ridge could seriously impact the Okefenokee Swamp.

“Mining on Trail Ridge is kind of like poking holes in the side of a bathtub,” Mendillo said. “Trail Ridge is that cup that holds everything in.”

Twin Pines plans to withdraw more than 1.4 million gallons of water from the Floridan Aquifer each day. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter reminding state regulators that federal law prohibits diverting water from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in quantities that would negatively impact its ability to serve as a habitat for its native wildlife. Last year, the FWS also asserted that Twin Pines’ assessments of the mine’s impact on the refuge had “critical shortcomings.”

The federal agency predicted a higher likelihood of fires in the area due to lower water levels and dry conditions. These fires could degrade the area’s carbon-capturing soil, threatening its natural ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Mendillo has been trying to educate the public on these risks and enlist them in the fight against the mine. Along with rallying for favorable legislation, One Hundred Miles has connected with community members to manage a paper petition, which has garnered more than 500 signatures so far. The petition is available at local events, including something One Hundred Miles calls “Okefenokee Connections,” where organizers take people on boat tours in the swamp.

One group selected for a tour was Cherokee of Georgia, one of only three state-recognized tribes in Georgia.

“I was really surprised at how many of our tribal members had not been there,” said tribal liaison Jane Winkler. “It was thoroughly enjoyed by all.”

Winkler, an enrolled member of the Beaver Creek tribe out of South Carolina, has been volunteering with the Cherokee of Georgia since she and her husband moved to Georgia. Opposition to the mine has consumed much of her time over the past couple of years.

The Okefenokee Swamp and its surrounding lands are the traditional homelands of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, whom the federal government forcibly removed nearly 200 years ago. According to Winkler, the Cherokee of Georgia came to live in this area due to lesser-known relocation efforts lasting from the 1940s through the 1970s.

“[The swamp] has been declared a sacred site by the Muscogee (Creek) of Oklahoma, who are federally recognized, and they’re descendants of the Creek who were relocated during the 1800s,” Winkler said. “And we honor that, and are doing our best to protect it.”

The Cherokee of Georgia tribal grounds are less than 5 miles from the proposed mine site, and Winkler worries that their shallow wells will go dry because of the mine’s activities. The nearby waterways also play an important role in the tribe’s culture, meaning poor water quality can prevent them from completing ceremonies traditionally.

The swamp has historically been a haven for Black Americans as well, and nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park recently announced it will use half a million dollars to document and preserve the history of a group of all-Black conservationists who contributed to the swamp’s present-day condition.

“When I grew up, Okefenokee Swamp was the place ‘the Blacks’ could go,” said Deborah Reed, who grew up in the segregated South, in an interview with “Conservation Connection.” “You knew that you was going to be taken to the Okefenokee Swamp sometime during the summertime because it was a place you could go and nobody said nothing.”

Initially, Winkler said the Cherokee of Georgia wasn’t directly involved in the opposition to the mine, out of concern that a complaint from the public could jeopardize the tribe’s nonprofit status. The tribe doesn’t receive support from the local, state, or federal governments, so they rely on donations.

Once more groups spoke out against the project — including national organizations like the National Wildlife Refuge Association — the tribe was able to become more active by co-signing letters of opposition and submitting comments to the EPD.

“Now that there’s safety in numbers, we can participate on a greater level,” Winkler said.

Student organizers have joined the fight as well. Caleb Gustavson, a freshman at Georgia State University, attended the EPD’s hearing along with Ford, who serves as the campaign coordinator for the school’s “Save Money, Save Environment” campaign.

Gustavson works with Georgia State University’s Student Public Interest Research Group, and he spent his spring break canvassing all over Metro Atlanta. He said the people he’s spoken to have been overwhelmingly supportive, and the canvassing team has gathered 285 signatures to send to Governor Brian Kemp’s office.

“The bottom line is that the Okefenokee is simply more important than making toothpaste white,” Gustavson said.

Hannah McGrath, the campus organizer at Georgia State for Georgia PIRG, said the group will be hosting several on-campus events to get the word out.

Most of the mine’s opponents point to the fact that the EPD has already fined Georgia Renewable Power — which shares a parent company with Twin Pines — for environmental violations, and speakers at the public meeting said they feared similar results if Twin Pines is allowed to mine on Trail Ridge.

“There have been mining interests along Trail Ridge in the past, and some of the bigger ones like DuPont failed to get off the ground because of community backlash,” Mendillo said. “If we’re setting this precedent that it’s OK, then long term the swamp would be at risk.”

Advocates emphasize the importance of getting the public to submit public comments to the EPD before April 9. Winkler and Nixon pointed to the Everglades as a cautionary tale for the Okefenokee Swamp.

“I just want people to know how important their voices are to us and that we need them just as much as we need ourselves,” Nixon said.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $43,000 in the next 6 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.