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The Planet

How three Sierra Club chapters and shareholder activists helped convince DuPont to abandon its mine plans and and save a world heritage swamp.

By Tom Valtin

"They really pissed me off when they turned off my microphone," says retired Army lieutenant colonel Sam Booher. "I made a 1,700-mile round trip knowing I’d only get three minutes, but after 45 seconds the DuPont CEO cut me off, saying, ‘Good point—next!’ Then they shut off my mike."

It was April of 1997 and Booher, then chair of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter and a DuPont shareholder, had driven to Wilmington, Delaware, for DuPont’s annual shareholder meeting to voice his opposition to a strip mine the company had proposed immediately adjacent to Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Seven years later, after a concerted campaign by three Sierra Club chapters and a coalition of environmental and citizens’ groups, DuPont has abandoned plans for the mine and made the largest gift of conservation land in Georgia history.

‘An Uncommonly Beautiful and Sensitive Wilderness’: This is how Sam Booher, middle photo, described the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to DuPont’s CEO at a Dupont shareholder meeting in 1997, when a titanium mine on the refuge’s border looked like “a done deal.” Sierra Club organizer Josh Marks and Club Okefenokee Issues Leader Sam Collier, bottom photo, were key players in marshalling press attention and broad-based public opposition to the mine.

Booher says it all started with Judy Jennings. Savannah resident Jennings, then chair of the Georgia Chapter’s Coastal Group, didn’t exactly gallop through the streets on horseback in the wee hours alerting the populace, but she has come to be known by many conservationists in her home state as "the Paul Revere of the Okefenokee."

It was 1995 when Jennings first got wind of DuPont’s plans to develop a huge titanium mine bordering the Okefenokee Refuge, a unique area of pristine wetlands covering 438,000 acres in southeast Georgia. The Okefenokee swamp in its entirety spills into northern Florida and is home to hundreds of bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species, many of which are endangered or threatened.

Jennings alerted then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, appeared on CNN, and sounded the alarm far and wide. Now, eight years later, DuPont has officially scrapped its plans for the mine and retired its mineral rights in the area. On August 27, 2003, the company announced that it was donating 5,000 acres to the Okefenokee Refuge (via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and 11,000 acres to The Conservation Fund, a leading national environmental nonprofit. The gift is the largest donation in the history of the DuPont Land Legacy program.

" The Sierra Club was all over this issue for years," says Sam Collier, a strategic planning consultant who was the Club’s Southeast regional representative throughout the 1990s, "organizing citizen opposition to the mine, leading protests outside the DuPont shareholder meetings in 1997 and ’98, and actively participating in every stakeholder collaborative meeting, raising concerns and looking for ways to keep the mine out."

Collier, who remains the Club’s Okefenokee Issues Leader, calls this one of the Club’s greatest corporate accountability victories. "The case was taken directly to the corporation, not to the regulators," he says. "Credit for this victory belongs to a number of people, but it was Judy Jennings who really got the ball rolling."

" Actually," says Jennings deferentially, "it was Becky Shortland, a Club member who worked with the Georgia Conservancy, who first brought it to my attention. Becky had been making trips to the Okefenokee for some time, and starting in 1995 she asked me to accompany her there every other month. DuPont representatives were acting like it was a done deal; Becky and I were shocked."

The mine was proposed for an area called Trail Ridge, on the refuge’s eastern boundary. "Huge quantities of soil would have had to be dug up to get the titanium," Jennings says, "and the operation would have run 24/7 for decades. I spent more than a year gathering information from geologists and hydrogeologists, and they pretty much agreed that there was no way DuPont could insure that the swamp wouldn’t be harmed by the mine."

Coastal Group activists launched an effort to reach out to citizen stakeholders, politicians, and people in the ecotourism industry. "We wrote and called everyone we could think of who might be able to help out," Jennings says. "And this was in the days before e-mail; it was like trying to climb a 15,000-foot peak with sea-level lungs. I gave talks to garden clubs, Audubon Society meetings, environmental forums, and almost any gathering I could find."

Jennings and other Coastal Group activists cranked up the publicity machine, talking to every reporter whose ear she could bend until the Savannah paper finally published a story, and shortly thereafter a full-page article ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Our position was, ‘Not This, Not Here,’" says Jennings. "It might be convenient for DuPont to mine titanium ore on Trail Ridge, but it wasn’t necessary—we weren’t depriving them of access to a mineral they couldn’t find in a lot of other places."

The Coastal Group produced a media packet that they put in as many hands as possible, and the group cranked out thousands of letters to elected officials. "Babbitt’s office was copied on all of these," Jennings says, "and we eventually got a call from his office saying he’d like to come down."

Babbitt visited the Okefenokee in April 1997. "The refuge manager took him up in a chopper to show him the mine site," recalls Collier, "and when Babbitt saw its proximity to the refuge he said, ‘This can’t happen. There’s a line right here in the sand and DuPont can’t cross it.’" Babbitt publicly denounced the mine proposal, calling for DuPont to withdraw from the site, and subsequently Georgia Governor Zell Miller did as well.

Within days, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources passed a resolution against the mine, and DuPont hastily called a press conference in Atlanta calling a halt to all preparatory work while a "stakeholder collaborative process" of all interested parties decided the fate of the mine. "We will not go forward unless and until we can convince all parties, and ourselves, that we will do no harm to the refuge," the company said.

It was at this point that the Sierra Club and its allies took the campaign to DuPont shareholders in Wilmington. On April 28, 1997, Club activists from Georgia, Florida, and Delaware protested outside DuPont’s shareholder meeting in Wilmington. Inside, Booher, Jennings, and several other Georgia stockholders waited for the opportunity to voice their opposition to the mine directly to the company’s board of directors.

Booher had written to DuPont’s chairman of the board several months before when he first heard about the company’s plans for the titanium mine. "I got no response," he says. "So I wrote again a couple months later, copying my congressman and senators." Again Booher received no reply, but he did receive his invitation to the annual DuPont shareholders meeting, so he and his wife hopped in their car and drove 850 miles from Augusta, Georgia, to Wilmington.

" I was expecting a comment period at the end of the meeting," he says. "I had a 3-minute speech prepared, but no one circulated or asked for comment. So I raised my hand and someone came over with a microphone. I introduced myself and said my wife and I had come all the way from Georgia to express our opinion that mining a common ore next to an uncommonly beautiful and sensitive wilderness was shortsighted and would hurt DuPont stock." That’s when he was cut off.

The Sierra Club’s Corporate Accountability work has taken off in the past several years. Find out more about its successes beyond the Okefenokee here.

Booher was furious. "Screw me once, OK," he says. "Screw me twice, no way." He decided then and there to put together a DuPont shareholder resolution opposing the mine, using the speech he hadn’t been allowed to deliver in Wilmington as the text of the resolution. With $1,000 of his own money, Booher hired Bruce Herbert of NewGround Investment Services, a Seattle firm specializing in shareholder resolutions and socially responsible investing, to "go as far as you can with it" and help get the resolution presented to DuPont’s board of directors.

Herbert warned that the odds against its passing were long, but in time he rounded up support from several major shareholders, including the California Teachers Union, one of the largest single holders of DuPont stock. He also contacted three groups of Catholic Sisters—all DuPont shareholders—from New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, who readily agreed to submit the resolution at the next annual shareholder meeting.

Following the April 1997 shareholder protest, a concerted lobbying effort by the Sierra Club’s Georgia, Florida, and Delaware chapters ensued, led by Club organizer Josh Marks in Atlanta, Maurice Coman in Florida, and longtime activist Debbie Heaton, Regina Katz, and regional staffer Mike D’Amico in Delaware. Marks turned up the heat of the campaign in Georgia, getting mayors, local businesses (including DDS—"Dentists Defending the Swamp"), student groups, civic organizations, and Georgia Senator Max Cleland to oppose the mine plan. "Josh came to Georgia just in time to focus for two solid years on the campaign as a very effective organizer, marshalling massive press attention and broad-based public opposition," says Collier.

Meanwhile, the first Stakeholder Collaborative meeting was held in August 1997 in Folkston, Georgia, the closest town to the proposed mine. Every month, Marks, Collier, and other Club staff and activists would gather with other interested parties at the train depot.

" The Folkston depot is right on the busiest line on the east coast," explains Collier. "About 160 people showed up for that first meeting, and 40 parties served as the ‘Collaborative Process Core Group’ thereafter, including the Georgia Wildlife Federation, Audubon, local landowners, garden clubs, scientists, DuPont people, and two intrepid reporters who told the world what went on inside that room." Also among the stakeholders were Native Americans who had burial sites up on Trail Ridge. DuPont had apparently uncovered bones in planning for the mine, and the tribal representatives wanted them to leave the burial sites undisturbed.

The first Stakeholder Collaborative meeting was deemed so successful that the meetings became monthly events, and in December 1997 the "no-mine scenario" was introduced for the first time. This led to the formation of the No-Mine Scenario subgroup, in which the Sierra Club played a prominent role.

" We posited that there was more economic value in the refuge than in the mine," Collier says. "Why jeopardize this with a strip mine? The town of Folkston wasn’t optimizing the tourist economy, so we worked to support sustainable development—specifically an education center that would be a base for scientific work and a visitor center for tourists.

In April 1998, Booher drove back to Wilmington for the next shareholders meeting, as did scores of other Georgia and Florida Sierra Club members. They joined with Delaware Chapter activists to protest in Rodney Square, across the street from the DuPont Hotel where the shareholders were meeting. With the press looking on, Booher and the gathered activists unfurled a chain of 20,000 petition signatures and postcards opposing the mine, which stretched for a whole city block. "We got lots of time to talk this time around," Booher says.

Among those who spoke inside the meeting was Florida volunteer Maurice Coman, who presented DuPont’s CEO with the petition signatures and cards opposing the mine. "The auditorium was like a game-show set," Coman recalls. "There were three executives up on stage sitting behind desks with a backlit white screen displaying the DuPont logo. Plainclothes security personnel were stationed at every entrance, and there were ushers moving through the audience carrying lanterns.

" I grew up in Jacksonville, just south of the swamp," he said when it came his turn to speak. "I spent many days of my childhood canoeing and camping in the swamp, and I would hate to see anything that would disrupt it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone." Coman’s remarks were followed by comments from Booher, Marks, and Bruce Herbert, who had co-filed the shareholder resolution opposing the mine with the Catholic Sisters.

The shareholder resolution was ultimately defeated, receiving 3.4 percent of the vote. "That may sound small," says Marks, "but it represented more than 51 million shares of stock, and it was enough to qualify us for the following year’s agenda." Just as important, it was enough to give DuPont a black eye in Delaware and Georgia.

In February 1999, an official No-Mine Agreement was signed by the Collaborative Stakeholders in Folkston, and two years later, DuPont announced that it would not mine in the vicinity of the Okefenokee even if it received no compensation for its mining royalties. The deal was sealed in August 2003 with DuPont’s official announcement that it was retiring its mineral rights in the area, and its 16,000-acre gift of conservation lands.

Another legacy of the campaign is the establishment of the Okefenokee Education and Research Center, slated to open this spring in several historic school buildings in downtown Folkston. "This is a much more sustainable form of economic development in this small rural community than the mine would have been," Collier asserts.

Also established during the mine controversy was the Georgia Nature-Based Tourism Association, which first sprang up in Folkston to give voice to the mom-and-pop owners of campgrounds, B&Bs, outfitters, and others near the Okefenokee whose economic livelihood would have been at risk from the mine. The organization has now gone statewide, with a central office in Atlanta.

" Tourism is now the biggest industry in Georgia," says Booher, "and the Okefenokee is arguably the biggest single draw. It’s in a relatively poor part of the state, and the jobs that mining would have produced pale in comparison with tourism dollars generated by the Okefenokee Refuge."

Yet another outcome is DuPont’s new policy of holding collaboratives to address issues of concern to all stakeholders wherever in the world they mine titanium, and requiring the same of companies from which they purchase titanium. "DuPont says this is one of their ‘learnings’ from the mine controversy," Collier explains, "and they now use it in Australia and other places with the titanium ores they seek."


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