April 23, 2024 2:13 am
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As compromise mining bill advances, a look at Twin Pines’ contributions

An overhead photo at the Okefenokee shows the diverse plant life and ecosystem of the swamp, resembling cultures grown in a petri dish. (Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current)

Mary Landers, The Current

The Current is an independent, in-depth, and investigative journalism website for Coastal Georgia.

A compromise bill between the interests of private property owners and of Okefenokee swamp conservationists progressed faster in two weeks than the Okefenokee Protection Act has been unable to do in over two years: It sped out of committee and toward a vote.

Both bills are a response to Alabama-based Twins Pines Minerals’ plans to strip mine for titanium dioxide and other minerals on 582 acres about three miles away from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on a elevated area called Trail Ridge. Georgia regulators issued Twin Pines’ draft permits for the mine in early February.  Opponents argue the demonstration mine will damage the hydrology of the swamp. Twin Pines insists the demonstration will prove the mining can proceed safely. Their plans include future mining on thousands more acres on Trail Ridge.

The compromise bill, HB 1338, provides for a three-year moratorium on the acceptance of applications for new permits by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for surface mining using dragline mining for heavy mineral sands. It was introduced in the legislature on Feb. 20, sailed through a subcommittee the next day and got approval from the full Natural Resources committee the following day. It has six sponsors, all Republicans: Reps. John Corbett, Steven Meeks, Charles Cannon, Rick Townsend, Lynn Smith and Steven Sainz.

The Okefenokee Protection Act (HB 71), in contrast, was first introduced in 2023. The bill would prohibit future mining on Trail Ridge, which runs along the eastern edge of the refuge. It garnered more than 90 bipartisan sponsors — enough to guarantee its passage — and gained a hearing after crossover day, but no vote. The bill continues to be blocked with no hearing or vote scheduled in 2024. 

Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park) Credit: Anna Watkins

Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), the compromise bill’s main sponsor, objects to the Okefenokee Protection Act on principle. Corbett’s district included the proposed mining area.

“Let me explain why I won’t sign that bill: It walks all over private property rights,” Corbett said at the bill’s hearing last year. “We’re taking somebody’s property and not compensating them.”

The Georgia Conservancy is the only environmental group publicly supporting the compromise bill. The more than 30 other organizations in the Okefenokee Protection Alliance oppose it.

“The language in the bill is not perfect from our perspective, and we hope to continue working on it,” said President Katherine Moore.  “At the same time, we respect the strong feelings about property rights that a lot of folks in rural Georgia have.   The legislative process is always about finding balance, and our organization will continue working within the process to get an actual result that provides as much protection for our natural resources as possible.”

Twin Pines Minerals plans to mine along Trail Ridge near the swamp. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

The Georgia Conservancy, along with other environmental groups as well as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, object to that language in the compromise bill that puts a time limit on the judicial review of a permit, automatically affirming the permit if the deadline isn’t met.

“We believe these provisions could negatively affect the public’s ability to participate meaningfully in the permitting process,” USFWS Acting Director Stephen Guertin wrote to the bill’s sponsor Rep. John Corbett and Rep. Lynn Smith, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. “Mining near the Refuge is of great public interest and the potential impacts to the Refuge, and the Swamp as a whole, are complex. The risks to this national treasure are too great to dispense with the public’s opportunity to review, understand, and comment on the permitting process through an arbitrary deadline.

All the groups in the Okefenokee Protection Alliance, including the Georgia Conservancy, support the Okefenokee Protection Act. And it’s seen an outpouring of public support. Twin Pines’ mining proposal, meanwhile, has met with public disapproval. A recent public comment period on the company’s land use plan attracted more than 78,000 comments, according to EPD.

A September 2022 poll done by the Georgia Water Coalition indicated 69% of Georgians and 75% of south Georgians want Gov. Brian Kemp to take “immediate action” to protect the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge from a proposed mine near its border. 

The citizen input is a “big deal,” said Alice Miller Keyes of One Hundred Miles.

“It’s almost like the legislators, the governor included, just aren’t hearing their constituents and acting in the method that they are authorized to act to protect what the citizens of Georgia really love, which is Okefenokee,” Keyes said.

Campaign contributions

Josh Marks, president of Georgians for the Okefenokee, and a leader of the successful fight against DuPont’s strip mine at the Okefenokee in the 1990s, has tallied up campaign contributions from mining interests and points to them to explain the legislators’ behavior. 

Attorney Josh Marks speaks to representatives from Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant faith communities across Georgia gathered at the Okefenokee Swamp Wednesday, Dec. 6 for a prayer vigil urging lawmakers to enact House-Bill 71, “The Okefenokee Protection Act.” Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

“Since 2018, Twin Pines Minerals and its lobbyists have given over $100,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Kemp, Speaker Burns, Lt. Governor Jones, members of the Natural Resources Committee and others,” he wrote in an email. 

The website OpenSecrets.org tracks campaign contributions. It lists contributions of $44,350 from Steve Ingle, the president of Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals LLC, to state and federal leaders in Georgia over the last five years.

 Significant contributions include:

  • $5,000 to Speaker Jon Burns (R-Newington) on Jan. 6, 2023, three days before the start of the legislative session and the vote to make Burns speaker. Burns has run unopposed since the general election in 2016.
  • $2,750 to John Corbett, in October, 2022. Corbett, whose district includes the footprint of the proposed Charlton County mine, has run unopposed since 2016.
  • $4,500 to Kemp for Governor in September, 2019.
  • $5,000 to Burt Jones in September, 2022 during his successful run for lieutenant governor.

Twin Pines Minerals donated $52,700 to state and federal leaders in Georgia over the last 6 years, according to Open Secrets. Significant contributions include:

  • Former Speaker David Ralston: $7,300 from 2018 to 2022. Ralston died in November, 2022.
  • Rep. John Corbett: $2,250 in October 2021. Corbett, whose district includes the footprint of the proposed Charlton County mine, has run unopposed since 2016.
  • Lt. Gov. Burt Jones: $1,000 in April, 2022 during his successful run for lieutenant governor.
  • House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan): $500 in January 2022. Smith has chaired the Natural Resources Committee for more than a decade.

Marks also points to the influence of Toledo Manufacturing, which owns 30,000 acres immediately north of Twin Pines’ acreage along the southeast boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.  The company leased its acreage to DuPont in the 1990s for mining, though that mining effort was ultimately thwarted.  Toledo’s president, Joe Hopkins, testified against The Okefenokee Protection Act in March 2023, saying the permitting process couldn’t be bypassed without infringing on property rights.

“The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution does provide that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” he said. “That’s what your EPD does. That’s what it does. It provides that due process of law, this is huge, make your case you want to permit will look at it, you may lose, but you have had your due process of law. If we pass this bill that goes away.”

Significant donations from Hopkins include:

  • Gov. Brian Kemp: $6,000 in three contribution in August 2018, October 2018 and October 2022.
  • Rep. John Corbett: $1,000 in two contributions in October 2020 and September 2022.

Marks draws a direct link between donations and both the legislative path and the permitting path.

“That collectively explains why Governor Kemp and EPD have issued draft permits for TPM’s dangerous Okefenokee mining project despite massive scientific and public opposition and have ignored TPM’s repeated violations of law,” he wrote. “And it’s also why Speaker Burns has killed HB 71 two years running despite nearly 100 cosponsors, while allowing HB 1338, a bill that will fast track mining at the swamp for the next 30 years, to pass out of committee less than 48 hours after introduction.  It’s a complete and total travesty.   Instead of selling out our greatest natural treasure to a law-breaking Alabama mining company and a multi-millionaire landowner, Governor Kemp and Speaker Burns ought to follow the science, the law, and the will of the public and protect the Okefenokee now and for future generations.” 

But Corbett, who testified about what he sees as property rights infringement inherent in HB 71, rejects the idea that pro-mining donations have influenced his stance. Corbett said in an email to The Current that the bill is “bad policy and sets an awful precedent.”

Twin PInes’ staging area in Charlton County.

Regarding campaign contributions, he suggested that Dr. William Clark, chair of the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, donated double the amount that Twin Pines has donated and he has hosted fund raisers that has raised even more.

“Dr. Clark is the face of the swamp,” Corbett wrote. “Maybe you should consider the fact that HB 71 is bad policy and set an awful precedent.”

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission lists $8,533 in donations from Clark to “Friends of John Corbett” since 2014.

A spokesman for Gov. Brian Kemp indicated the governor doesn’t control the path of bills.

“Since your question pertains to a legislative process that falls squarely under the control of the General Assembly, I’d refer you to them,” wrote Carter Chapman, the Deputy Press Secretary for Gov. Brian Kemp. “Regarding draft permits, that process is also completely independent per state and federal regulations, so I’d refer you to EPD.”

The governor does have ultimate veto power over bills. And he appoints the head of the EPD. Kemp proclaimed an Okefenokee Swamp Day in 2022, but has said little publicly about the mining or swamp since.

Speaker Burns’ spokesman Stephen Lawson said all bills are weighed equally.

“HB 1338 has been given the same consideration as every other single piece of legislation working its way through the legislative process—nothing more, nothing less,” Lawson said.

Chairwoman Smith did not respond to requests to address the influence of campaign donations on the Okefenokee-related bills.

Moore, of the Georgia Conservancy, pointed out that as a nonprofit it can’t make campaign contributions.

“Our organization does not make campaign contributions, and we felt we were treated very fairly and our concerns were heard around HB 1338,” she wrote.

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