Heavy-mineral-sands mine operated by Iluka Resources in Virginia.
Source: Bradley Van Gosen, U.S. Geological Survey.

Follow ancient marine shorelines from Virginia to Florida along the ACP and you will find deposits of HMS. These sands, exposed through rising and falling sea levels, harbor titanium (Ti), which is extracted from ilmenite (FeTiO3), leucoxene (altered FeTiO3), and rutile (TiO2). Titanium made the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) list of 35 mineral commodities “critical” to economic and national security, pursuant to Executive Order 13817 of December 2017, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals.” (31) It is likely included on the DOI list owing to the aerospace and defense applications of rutile, yet 95% of domestic consumption of titanium is not in its metal alloy form but as titanium dioxide (TiO2), a bright, white pigment used in paints, paper, plastics, and other consumer products. (32) Elsewhere, peatland drainage has been shown to impact mercury concentration; a Finnish study measured an increase in mercury with peat disturbance and drainage in a forest lake compared with another lake in a farming community.
Aquatic Resolutions
West Mims
Subsequent to Executive Order 13817, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Association of American State Geologists awarded $7.97 million toward projects on potential domestic sources of critical minerals in FY2020 under the USGS Mineral Resources Program’s Earth Mapping Resources Initiative, or Earth MRI. (33) The program’s website states that “mineral exploration by the private sector is hampered by the lack of modern geological, geophysical, and topographic data,” (34) citing a data gap to legitimize a political agenda.

Among the Earth MRI projects, which cross 21 states, are ones to locate heavy minerals in the Fall Zone of the Coastal Plain of Virginia and the Trail Ridge Placers of northeastern Florida—two of three areas that have seen the majority of extraction in the 100-year history of HMS mining in the Southeast. (35) Exploration in these areas is unsurprising in the context of market growth; globally, the TiO2 market generated a revenue of $15,020.1 million in 2019 and is predicted to increase to $24,026.1 million in 2030. (36)

It is in this context that Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, LLC (TPM) has applied to mine the Trail Ridge deposit for TiO2 and zirconium (ZrO2, used in ceramics). It is not the first time this area near the Okefenokee has been sought after for HMS mining; E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. (DuPont) attempted to establish a mine there in the 1990s. In fact, DuPont has a long history in TiO2 dating to 1931. Upon discovering the Trail Ridge deposit in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Florida Geological Survey, DuPont opened a HMS mine in Starke, Florida in 1949, then another near Lawtey, Florida known as the Highland Plant in 1955.

DuPont spun off The Chemours Company (hereafter Chemours) in 2015, which in 2019 expanded into Georgia with its acquisition of Southern Ionics Minerals, LLC (SIM). SIM, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, had been mining in Charlton County, Georgia since 2014. With their expansion, DuPont assumed control of existing SIM operations and followed up on plans to open a new facility in Wayne County, Georgia to mine TiO2, zircon (ZrSiO4, used for tile and metals), and staurolite (used for cleaning metals). DuPont Titanium Technologies sought to mine 2,254 acres of Wayne County in 2014 but withdrew their application after backlash from local residents and conservation groups. (37) Nonetheless, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp welcomed Chemours back in September 2020. Their more recent application, submitted in June 2020, is for a 3,980-acre area of Wayne County—of which 637 acres are wetlands. (38)

In July 2019, TPM submitted their initial permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to mine 1,450 acres of the Trail Ridge deposit. Trail Ridge is a sand ridge 130 miles long and one to two miles wide, bounded on the west by the Okefenokee. It has a higher water table in Georgia than in Florida because of the abundance of wetlands. The original application posed “temporary” impacts to 522 acres of wetlands and 2,454 linear feet of tributaries and “permanent” impacts to 65 acres of wetlands and 4,658 linear feet of tributaries. (39)

In response to criticism of the threat to one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems, the company submitted a revised application in March 2020 for a smaller “demonstration” project of 898 acres. Environmental protection organization The Georgia Conservancy believes this revision to be a “classic case of permit ‘segmentation’ where an applicant reduces the size of the impact to lessen the regulatory review,” in this case to avoid an Environmental Impact Statement. (40) (41) The area again shrunk to 600 acres over the summer after news that TPM does not in fact have the right to mine on part of the tract (42)—but the essence of the application remains the same.

The TPM project is only one of other recent mining efforts on or near peatlands. (43) Research shows the lasting damage this can bring; one study of oil sands mining in Alberta, Canada claims that, contrary to statements by the industry, environments destroyed by open-pit mining will not be restored and instead support >65% less peatland. (44) HMS mining utilizes a different process than oil sands mining, however, there is cause for concern regarding reclamation of HMS mines. One wetland ecologist’s report on the TPM project suggested the company is “trivializing the difficulty” of a wetlands creation project—which has a low probability of success under better circumstances—on top of homogenized tailings in altered hydrologic conditions, concluding that TPM does not have a “reasonable probability of reclamation success.” (45) Another wetland ecologist and former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee stated that “the applicant’s assertion that functional wetland mitigation/restoration at the refilled mining pits will be successful is not scientifically credible.” (46)

One interviewee from Southeast Georgia recounted to me an experience some residents had with another HMS mine operated by Southern Ionics, the supposedly “safety-obsessed” (47) company that has been acquired by Chemours:

There's a lady and her husband and they have a guest lodge and a restaurant up north of Folkston. They owned property that Southern Ionics mined around. They never sold out to the mining company. They held onto the property until Southern Ionics closed down that section of the mine. They created an island. They sold the property but it's an island; nothing grows on or around it.

That mine, Mission Mine South, opened near the City of Folkston, Charlton County, Georgia in 2014. In 2013, a wetland delineation identified 502.781 acres of jurisdictional wetlands, 4.37 acres of non-jurisdictional wetlands, and 823.78 linear feet of jurisdictional waters in the 1268 acre area of the original permit, which has since been extended. (48) See right for images of the mine as well as homes that the mine surrounded.

Iluka Resources’ extracted HMS from 2004 to 2006 at their Lulaton Mine in Brantley County, Georgia. The timelapse below shows the Lulaton Mine area over 20 years from 1999 to 2019, including the lifespan of the mine and the 13 years after its closure.
May 2011 -
Area south of Winokur Road before mining commences

December 2014 -
Mining begins, creating an island out of this house

April 2016

March 2017
January 2019
December 2014 -
Mine is active south of Winokur Road

January 2019 -
Operations continue south of Lowthur Road

2022 • About | Notes