The Stream, March 1, 2023: Okefenokee Swamp, Among World’s Largest Freshwater Wetlands, Threatened by Proposed Mine
YOUR GLOBAL RUNDOWN
- In southern Ukraine, a reservoir controlled by Russian troops has been drained to its lowest level in three decades.
- Extreme rains and mudslides in southeastern Brazil kill dozens of people and force thousands from their homes.
- Farming leaders in England push for new reservoirs as water shortages become more common and severe.
- In Georgia, citizens and scientists are urging the state to reject a mining project near the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge.
In Cameroon, abandoned mining pits are filling to become dangerous artificial lakes, claiming hundreds of lives and threatening animal species.
“Of all the deaths recorded at abandoned mining sites, the most striking is that of Samba. In 2017, the 12-year-old was walking home when he slipped into a deep pit abandoned by Metallicon S.A and died.” — Justin Landry Chekoua, Forests and Rural Development executive.
Of the more than 700 identified abandoned mining pits in Cameroon, NGOs found that 139 in the last two years had filled with rain to become artificial lakes. These pits pose considerable dangers to nearby communities. Mongabay reports that between 2015 and 2022, more than 200 people have died from drownings, cave-ins, and landslides. Compounding this loss of human life, the dumping of mercury and other toxic pollutants in and near these sites has caused a sharp decline in the endangered hippopotamus population. According to Mongabay, “today, about 20 remain compared to over 100 ten years ago.” Local authorities in Cameroon do not strictly enforce environmental regulations for mining companies, and nationwide legislation on the matter has not yet been completed.
— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor
Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue
- Ongoing Battle to Keep Toxic Chemicals at Bay — A growing array of contaminants threaten Michigan’s rivers, lakes and drinking water systems, and many of them are still unregulated.
- Flush with Cash, State Lawmakers Consider Water Risks — Water is poised for prominence this year in state law and policy.
The 400,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp, located in southeastern Georgia, is one of the world’s largest intact freshwater wetlands and a crucial hotspot for biodiversity in a warming American Southeast. More than 620 plant, 39 fish, 64 reptile, 234 bird, and 50 mammal species — including those which are regionally threatened, such as the wood stork and gopher tortoise — call the national refuge home. But Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, an Alabama-based company, is seeking state approval for a proposed titanium dioxide mine, which would be built along the swamp’s eastern coast, Sierra Magazine reports.
Residents, scientists, and activists alike are pushing back, saying that the mine could irreversibly damage the Okefenokee’s freshwater flow and ecology, as well as impairing its ability to store carbon. In public meetings hosted by the Georgian Environmental Protection Division (EPD), no resident has voiced support for the mine, Georgia Public Broadcasting reports. Concerns are growing that the mine would also negatively impact the nearby St. Mary’s River, which flows through the swamp along the Florida-Georgia border.
Scientists are also rejecting a water level study conducted by Twin Pines, which concluded that “proposed mining activities will have negligible impact on the hydrologic system of Trail Ridge and the Okefenokee Swamp.” But according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the study was not peer-reviewed, and 1.13 million gallons of water per day will be removed from the mining area.
Eleven hydrologists from southern universities signed a letter last week, objecting to the EPD’s plans for water evaluation should the mine be approved, saying the proposed data collection sites would not accurately reflect the true hydrological impacts. Sierra Magazine reports that local tribes, including the Muscogee Nation, were not consulted by Twin Pines.
The decision falls on the state, which is accepting public comment through March 20, though current lawsuits are attempting to bring the decision back under federal jurisdiction.
This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers
Number of meters (approximately 6 feet) that the Kakhovka reservoir has dropped since November 2022, NPR reports. The man-made reservoir, “roughly the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah,” is located in southern Ukraine, just north of the Crimean peninsula. Russian forces currently occupy the location, which for 70 years has provided drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people and irrigation for 200,000 hectares of sunflowers, grains, and vegetables. Today the waters cool the nearby Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. New satellite data shows that over the past four months, Russian troops’ opening of sluice gates has caused the reservoir to plunge to a 30-year low.
Number of people forced from their homes last week after heavy rains led to destructive mudslides and floods along the coast of Brazil’s São Paulo state. The BBC reports that more than two feet of rain fell within a 24-hour period, dislodging rock and earth above coastal municipalities. More than nine million Brazillians live in flood- and mudslide-prone areas. And according to Reuters, the official death toll from the extreme weather event has been counted at 57 people.
On the Radar
Unseasonal cold in Spain and North Africa has led to empty grocery shelves in England, a major importer of produce from those countries, the Guardian reports. Amid vegetable rationing, the trade setback has raised questions over the country’s long-term food security.
England imports 40 percent of its food, and calls to bolster domestic output have spotlighted the country’s water shortages, which are becoming more common and severe. “No new reservoirs have been built in the UK since the water industry was privatized in 1989,” the Guardian says, and English farmers are demanding better infrastructure in order to grow crops locally.
Some have pointed out that the agricultural sector has used water inefficiently and wastefully. Others, however, blame the government’s inability to encourage or incentivize smarter water use. A representative of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the Guardian that the government will continue to offer water management grants to farmers. Meanwhile, long-term solutions — including regenerating peatlands, rivers, and farm soils — continue to be advocated for and deliberated.
More Water News
Rideau Canal — For the first time in its 52-year history, the Rideau Canal — which flows through downtown Ottawa and is turned into a public-access skating path each winter — will not open. Warm temperatures and rain, instead of snow, are cause for the extended closure, the New York Times reports.
Permafrost Thaw — Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have found that while land will continue to sink, due to ice melt, in warming tundra ecosystems, runaway permafrost thaw is unlikely to occur.
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