Friday, March 03, 2023

Bill To Protect Okefenokee Swamp Still In House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment As Deadline For Action Nears

***Oconee Rep. Wiedower Sits On Committee***

Georgia House Bill 71, introduced on Jan. 24 by Thomasville Republican Darlene Taylor, generated a lot of attention by groups around the state seeking to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from nearby mining.

The Georgia River Network, based in Athens and with many followers in Oconee County, urged its members to write their legislators in support of the bill.

The Georgia Conservancy did the same, as did the Georgia Watershed Coalition, the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little Santa Fe, and Suwannee River (WWALS) Watershed Coalition, and even the Georgia Municipal Association.

Particular attention was focused on the 24-member House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, to which the bill was sent.

Newnan Republican Lynn Smith chairs that Committee, and Oconee County 121st House District Representative Marcus Wiedower is a member.

So far, the Committee has not held hearings on the bill and has not received a subcommittee report.

The House is not in session tomorrow (Friday), and Monday is cross-over day, the last day when the House can pass a bill and send it to the Senate for action, making passage of HB 71 this session highly unlikely.

The Bill would not affect the pending application by Twin Pines to surface mine on Trail Ridge, which borders the Swamp, but it would prohibit the state from issuing, modifying, or renewing any permit or from accepting any bond to conduct surface mining operations near the Swamp in the future.

Bill Filed

When Taylor filed the bill, she had 41 co-sponsors, though only four are listed on the bill itself.

Sign Up Sheet HB 71 Sponsors
Wiedower Signature in Red Box
(Click To Enlarge)

I obtained the sign-up sheets for co-sponsors from the House Clerk’s Office.

The hand-written names and district numbers are difficult to read, and I missed it until it was pointed out to me by Wiedower, after I published this story, that he was a co-sponsor. 

His name was listed on the same line as that of another sponsor, and I read the name and district number as the first name of the other signee.

I apologize to Wiedower for the error. I have highlighted his signature in the updated picture of that sheet above at the right.

Other Signatures

Spencer Frye, a Democrat whose 122nd House District is entirely in Clarke County, did sign. 

Rep. Houston Gaines, who represents the Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts of Oconee County, was not a sponsor. Wiedower and Gaines are Republicans.

The Current reported last week that House Bill 71 now “has garnered more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors,” so it is possible that Gaines has joined.

I sent Wiedower a message on Tuesday to his official House email address asking him if he could give me an “update on HB 71?”

“I don't see any evidence of action from your Natural Resources and Environment Committee,” I wrote. “Do you anticipate any action from the Committee?”

“Do you support the Bill?” I asked. (I had not recognized his signature on the sheet.)

Wiedower did not reply to that email.

Okefenokee Update

In January the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) released the draft Mining Land Use Plan that Twin Pines Minerals LLC of Birmingham, Ala., has filed to extract titanium and zirconium from a tract of land on what is called the Trail Ridge east of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Map Of Okefenokee Swamp
And Proposed Mining Site

The EPD opened the 60-day public commenting period and held two scheduled virtual public meetings on February 21 and 23.

Opponents have argued that the mining would impact wetlands on or adjacent to this Twin Pines site and could permanently impact the hydrology of the entire Okefenokee Swamp.

Taylor introduced a bill in the 2022 session of the Georgia House that would have banned all mining near the Okefenokee, including at the Twin Pines site.

That bill died in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Smith was the chair of that Committee last year as well.

Smith’s Biography

In her biography on the General Assembly web site, Smith calls herself “A recognized leader in the community and the state of Georgia” who is “known for her ability to listen, learn and lead.”

Smith At Committee Meeting 2/23/2023

“She champions sound environmental policies that protect the environment, as well as the economy of Georgia,” she writes.

She also calls herself a “former educator, business owner and community leader.”

Newnan is the county seat of Coweta County, west of Atlanta.

According to her campaign finance records going back to April 5, 2022, she has not received any contributions from Twin Pines.

Wiedower received what is a relatively small donation for him of $250 from Twin Pines on Jan. 4, 2022.

Wiedower made a $1,500 contribution to Smith’s campaign on April 5 of 2022.

I do not contribute to political campaigns, but I have contributed to the Georgia River Network, and I did sign a form letter from that group stating my support for HB 71. (Wiedower responded to that form letter with his correction to my earlier post on 3/4/2023.)

2 comments: said...

Thank you, Lee, for this posting. The Georgia legislature appears to be in bed with the mining company, as it will not allow HB 71 out of Committee for the second year in a row. The only immediate source of help is the Georgia Environmental Protection Division that has the power to reject Twin Pines’ applications. It is accepting comments from the public at twin Countless organizations and individuals have donated and petitioned on behalf of a national treasure whose likely destruction will soon speak for itself.

Unknown said...

Our elected officials seem to not have the time to respond to constituents and perhaps are only interested in us when they are up for reelection. They don't respond to me either, but I am only a single person. Don't know why they don't respond to your blog. Glad the Oconee Enterprise pointed this out last week.

Jeanne Barsanti