The Okefenokee titanium dioxide blues

From a Pleistocene beach to your Oreo cookie, some white pigment which may or may not brighten your day.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 12, 2008 9:49PM (EDT)

Effective Saturday, the price for titanium dioxide will jump by $120 a metric ton, announced Dupont Titanium Technologies on Tuesday. A subsidiary of the E.I. Dupont de Nemours chemical multinational, Dupont Titanium Technologies is the largest manufacturer of titanium dioxide in the world. Most often employed as a white pigment, titanium dioxide finds its way into scores of industrial applications and products, including semiconductor manufacturing and sunscreen. It is also found in "toothpaste, plastic picnic forks, creamy Oreo filling... and even the M on M&Ms."

Always on the alert for random enlightenment, How the World Works became curious. Why the price hike? Was there a shortage of titanium ore, precipitating fears of peak titanium? Or was some new industrial niche booming, creating surging demand, as with the solar power/polysilicon connection?

The immediate answer -- ho hum. Demand is up, but the main driver appears to be an across-the-board rise in costs; for the energy necessary to process the chemicals, for the logistics of transporting it across the globe, and so on. Ore seems to be plentiful, and well distributed across the globe. Move along, move along, nothing to see here.

But even as my interest was fading, a couple of sentences from a Dupont press release caught my eye. "The company operates plants at DeLisle, Miss.; New Johnsonville, Tenn.; Edge Moor, Del.; Altamira, Mexico; and Kuan Yin, Taiwan; all of which use the chloride manufacturing process. The company also operates a plant in Uberaba, Brazil, for finishing titanium dioxide and a mine in Starke, Fla."

The north Florida town of Starke doesn't make international headlines very often, although its Wal-Mart superstore earned it some quality time in HTWW a couple of years ago. But having gone to high school in Gainesville, Fla., just down the road, seeing the name always stops me in my tracks, summoning up the humid embrace of Florida summers and the delicious promise of an afternoon thunderstorm. Now I was even more curious. How could Starke come to be in the same paragraph as Taiwan, where I had also lived, and to which I keep returning, intellectually, as I seek a better understanding of the forces of globalization. A titanium dioxide intersection between northern Florida and Taiwan? It would not be an exaggeration to say that such things are what I live for.

But a titanium mine in Starke? I had been under the impression that such things were more likely to be found in Nevada or Australia or New Guinea. As it happens, Dupont's Starke mine is one of only two locations in the United States where titanium- bearing ores are currently mined.

Dupont's titanium mine is in a geological formation known as Trail Ridge, which rises a hundred or so feet above sea level while reaching north from Gainesville up to Jesup, Georgia, a town whose name I had never seen referenced anywhere before today except by my high school friend Jim Sullivan, who has family in Jesup. Trail Ridge is the remains of a sand bar created some 250,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era, when what geologists like to call a "transgressing sea" pushed the coastlines of Florida and Southern Georgia 50-70 miles inland from where they currently reside. Over many thousands of years, the ceaseless action of waves and water precipitated the deposition of a variety of heavy minerals, including titanium-bearing ilmenite and leucoxene and rutile, into the sand dunes that piled up on top of the long sand bar. When the ocean receded, Trail Ridge emerged. The Trail Ridge "orebody" is currently regarded as the largest known repository of heavy minerals in the Atlantic-Gulf Coastal Plain.

Jim Sullivan and I spent a significant percentage of our high school weekends driving from Gainesville to the Atlantic coast to spend a day at our favorite beach, via a route that I now know took us just south of the trailing southern end of Trail Ridge. It tickles my fancy to realize that as I lathered myself with sunscreen to protect my frisbee-hurling limbs, I was coating myself with titanium dioxide that may once have been precipitated on a prehistoric precursor to my beloved Crescent Beach, 250,000 years earlier. And that perhaps, in some future era thousands of years hence, the sand dunes upon which I scrambled would be another ridge waiting to be mined, should Florida, and Floridians, survive that long.

Dupont started mining near Starke in the late 1940s. Via the wonders of Google Maps, you can see a remarkably clear picture of the mining operations right here. There, to the right, is the man-made pond where a gigantic dredge called "The Sandpiper" pumps more than 30 thousand gallons of water and sand every minute into a floating wet mill that separates the ilmenite and leucoxene from millions of tons of ancient beach sand. To the left is the naked gash of earth where the sand once lay, underneath a coating of pine forest.

Eventually, the Starke mine will be depleted. But there is much more ore to be mined along Trail Ridge, including what is believed to be an especially rich area of deposits adjoining Georgia's fabled Okefenokee Swamp. In the late 1990s, Dupont had plans to start up operations there that would commence when the Starke mine ran dry. Local environmentalists were horrified at the prospect. Dupont, one of the greatest polluters the world has ever known, now talks a good game about how it takes great care to "restore" natural landscapes after it has completed ripping all the useful minerals out of the ground, but you can't take apart a ridge that drains into one of the world's most remarkable wetlands (the home of Pogo and Albert the Alligator!) and put it back together again and expect that there will be no damage. Just the hundreds of truck trips a week necessary to transport ore back to the Starke processing facility would likely ruin the ambience.

I know, I know, this same story of environmental despoliation and industrial progress is told everywhere with great monotony. But the sound of the waves caressing Crescent Beach have How the World Works hopelessly mired in quicksand nostalgia, and the threat to the Okefenokee strikes too close to home. In 1979, Jim Sullivan and I and two other high school friends built a raft, hauled it up to Fargo, Georgia, where the Suwanee River emerges from the Okefenokee Swamp and did our damndest to imitate Huck Finn for a week, in celebration of our final liberation from high school. A titanium mine within hearing distance feels like a crime against nature and my own memory, even if I haven't been back to that spot in almost three decades. My apologies to Starke, which enjoys its own natural beauty, but it is no Okefenokee.

In this case, the public outcry was so great that Dupont was forced to back off, to renounce its mineral rights, and to donate thousands of acres to the Okefenokee Natural Wildlife Refuge. A rare happy ending. But one can only wonder -- where did the company's attention then turn?

And even as I write those words, I look around my home office and wonder how many of the manufactured items, the painted and the plastic gewgaws, contain titanium oxide, possibly from a prehistoric beach that now resides in Starke, and possibly refined in a factory in Kuan Yin, Taiwan. I am complicit.

Dupont first arrived in Taiwan in 1968. Its titanium dioxide plant, located in the Kuanyin Industrial Park about 30 miles west of Taipei, was approved by the Taiwanese government in 1985, but did not go into full production until 1994. The delay, says Dupont, "stemmed from local concerns about possible environmental and health risks."

As an example of successful industrial policy, you will be hard-pressed to do better than Taiwan, which managed both to lure foreign investment from companies like Dupont, and use the knowledge gained thereby to bootstrap its own extraordinarily successful independent industrial development. Industrial "parks" that offered low taxes and other incentives to foreign multinationals were a critical part of Taiwan's strategy. Dupont was just one of many companies looking to cut costs by integrating Taiwan into global production chains.

There is no rhyme or reason to this story. Trade and industrial development have resulted in a thriving economy in Taiwan where workers enjoy high standards of living and manufacture electronic gadgets that are hot commodities everywhere. There are many things to appreciate about that narrative. But the same processes have required that landscapes be destroyed, lakes poisoned, and wetlands banished forever. Now, temperatures are rising and seas that once receded may come back.

A wave leaches ilmenite into a sand dune 250,000 years ago. Humans leach it out, send it to Taiwan, transform it into a white pigment that mixed with plastic or metal becomes the casing for a computer monitor or an iPod that ends up in my home office. Environmentalists in southern Georgia and Taoyuan, Taiwan protest the process at both ends, striving for a sustainability that modern humans have yet to demonstrate is truly possible. Prices rise, mines run dry, the alligator and the black bear and the gopher tortoise hang on by a thread in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Pogo hides from Dupont -- whispering "we have met the enemy, and he is titanium dioxide."

Temperatures rise, the sun comes out, and suddenly all I want to do is be 17 again and driving to the beach where the waves have been singing the same song since long before the Pleistocene, and I can hurl my plastic made-in-China frisbee until the sun goes down without ever once thinking about anything more disturbing than whether or not I have enough sunscreen.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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