A respect for the environment and a commitment to conserving natural resources is a core value of SIM. Southeast Georgia is home to many precious resources: clean air and water, abundant wildlife and fisheries, productive soils and valuable minerals, and a complex cultural heritage. We believe that our use of one resource should not be at the expense of others, so we strive to be good stewards of the environment in all aspects of our operations.
Environmental stewardship has four main components: 1) Environmental impact assessment and impact mitigation planning; 2) Permitting and compliance; 3) Operational improvement; and 4) Education and outreach. Before we move the first shovelful of dirt, we spend years assessing sensitive resources such as wetlands and protected species, working with conservation partners to identify concerns, and developing plans to minimize our impacts. As we operate, we are continuously looking for technology and methods that allow us to improve efficiency and reduce our environmental and operational impact.
Our goal is to leave the mine site in a condition that ensures that the resources that sustain our communities today will be around for generations to come. We look to our landowner and conservation partners to help us achieve that goal. Drew Jones, a landowner leasing mineral rights to SIM said, “They are doing everything right for the environment. From partnering with the University of Georgia to relocate gopher tortoises away from the mining site to clean harvesting to improving the roads for water runoff control, SIM has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting the environment, going beyond what is required.”
Ecologist Says SIM Sets Example: a “Different Kind of Mining Company”
Clay Montague has been around the environmental sciences world. He’s a retired University of Florida professor who taught in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences. He’s a professional ecologist and environmental scientist who served as an interim Satilla Riverkeeper. Yet Dr. Montague says he has never seen a mining company quite like Southern Ionics Minerals.
“Environmental organizations would do well to point to Southern Ionics Minerals as an example for the natural resources industry,” the Camden County resident said. “They have been open and transparent with the community, and in terms of taking care of the environment, the company goes beyond what is required by law.”
Dr. Montague had never heard of Southern Ionics Minerals until company representatives called him at his Satilla Riverkeeper office and asked if they could come in and talk to him about their plans.
“Representatives of the company, including the owner, Milton Sundbeck, gave a straightforward explanation of their plans and made it clear that they are a different kind of mining company,” he said.
The fact that SIM approached the Satilla Riverkeeper impressed Dr. Montague, and since that initial meeting in 2012, he found the company takes good care of the environment and invests its own resources in new technologies that limit environmental impact, such as the wet mill.
“They also embrace the community,” he said, noting that Southeast Georgia needs employers that will offer a future to young people in the area. “This is a mining company that just does it better.”
Helping Gopher Tortoises Survive: SIM Works with UGA Scientists
“This ancient species is important to our future.”
-- Jim Renner, Manager of Environmental Stewardship
It was a childhood spent roaming the woods and meadows of Spartanburg County, South Carolina that led the University of Georgia’s Dr. Kimberly Andrews to a career as an ecologist. But it was another event that formed Dr. Andrews’ commitment to creating land management solutions that balance the needs of humans and nature: watching the gradual recession of wildlife habitat after a new auto plant brought jobs and development to her rural South Carolina county.
“While growing up, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time outdoors, although my mom got a little tired of all the snakes I would bring home from the woods and the creeks,” she said.
Now, as a member of the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology research faculty, Dr. Andrews is continuing to do what she loves: spending time in the woods studying reptiles and other creatures, and finding ways to help them thrive in a changing environment. At the Mission Mine site in Charlton County, she’s making sure Georgia’s state reptile is kept a safe distance from any mining-related activities, as part of a multi-year partnership with Southern Ionics Minerals (SIM).
“UGA’s work with SIM has allowed us to do some important research on gopher tortoises and habitat,” she said. “The information the graduate students are gathering about the animals’ health and behavior will contribute to better wildlife management plans.”
To SIM, partnership with the UGA research team was a natural. Responsible land management is one of the company’s guiding principles.
“We respect the lands we mine and consider it a privilege to be able to take care of them for our landowner partners, from pre-mine survey until completion of the reclamation phase,” said Jim Renner, SIM Manager of Environmental Stewardship.
Renner also noted that SIM participates in the state’s Gopher Tortoise Initiative that brings landowners, industry, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and various environmental groups together to establish conservation areas and design land use plans that are protective of the species.
Pointing out that only two percent of original gopher tortoise habitat remains, Dr. Andrews said her researchers are especially interested in gopher tortoise populations in Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida, and how they adapt to habitat loss.
Gopher tortoises are dependent on open canopied forest with abundant grasses and herbs in the understory. This habitat was originally dominated by long leaf pines, the native trees that once covered the coastal plains. The conversion of great swaths of long leaf pine forest to agriculture led to a dramatic decline in the population of the tortoises. Gopher tortoises are considered by wildlife biologists to be a “keystone” species because their burrows provide homes for at least 360 other woodland creatures. So fewer tortoises means fewer wildlife of all types.Because their burrows provide homes for at least 360 other woodland creatures, gopher tortoises are considered by wildlife biologists to be a “keystone species.”
“Before mining activities begin, we survey the site. If Southern Ionics’ mine plan cannot avoid an area where gopher tortoises are living, we remove any gopher tortoises we find. We also dismantle their burrows so that other animals will be discouraged from moving in,” she explained.
Relocating a gopher tortoise is not as simple as loading the family in the back of a truck and driving them to another wooded area. Like most animals, tortoises can carry infectious diseases. The first stop on the way to new home is Jekyll Island, for an examination by Dr. Terry Norton, a veterinarian at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Once they receive a clean bill of health, the tortoises are moved to one of three state wildlife management areas where the Georgia DNR is trying to establish stable populations. The tortoises spend their first few weeks in a halfway house of sorts. Being confined to a penned area gives them time to “settle in,” as Dr. Andrews describes it, and to bond with the new home territory. Some additional fencing is installed to keep them safe from nearby roadways.
Since gopher tortoises are territorial and social, the research team tries to move them to an area that is not already teeming with other tortoise tribes.
“We want them to be accepted into their new domain, and it’s easier if it’s a place that is only sparsely populated with gopher tortoises,” she said, explaining that the tortoises are tagged before being released from their temporary pen, so their movements can be monitored.
Given the life spans of gopher tortoises – more than 50 years in the wild and 100 years in captivity- protecting tortoises and their habitat is a long-term endeavor.
The pre-mine surveys and gopher tortoise relocations are now part of SIM’s standard operating procedure. As activities continue in the coming years, expect to see a new rotation of dedicated grad students combing the woods for telltale gopher tracks and burrows.
“Thanks to dedicated scientists like Dr. Andrews and her team, and the willingness of other private companies and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to recognize the value gopher tortoises bring to our environment, we are optimistic that the future of this animal will be secure,” Renner said.