AUGUSTA — A town manager from northern Maine pleaded with a legislative committee Friday to support a bill that would make way for a new mine in Aroostook County.

“We can have safe drinking water and jobs,” said Hollie Umphrey, Portage Lake’s town manager. “It’s not too much to ask. We have nothing else left. We are in an economic disaster.”

Umphrey and others from northern Maine testified in support of L.D. 1853, a bill sponsored by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, that would streamline and update mining laws. While supporters say northern Maine needs the jobs, opponents say they fear damage to lakes and drinking water.

“Polluted water could have devastating effects on our fish, wildlife and human health,” said Beth Ahearn, who spoke on behalf of Maine Conservation Voters. “This, in turn, could impact the sectors of Maine’s economy, like fishing and tourism, which rely on clean water, abundant fish and wildlife and a healthy environment.”

Although the bill would open up mining statewide for those who complete a Department of Environmental Protection permitting process, the project that prompted the bill is a proposal by a division of J.D. Irving that wants to mine for gold and silver on Bald Mountain.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee has spent about two weeks considering the bill, and asked for public feedback on Friday.

Deliberations on the bill are scheduled to continue next week. The bill would give general outlines to new regulations, such as setting fees, but would give the DEP authority to write the rules to govern mining.

The DEP would have to come back to lawmakers for approval of the rules by January 2014.

Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for J.D. Irving, said a new mine would bring 300 to 700 jobs to northern Maine. He said new technology would enable the company to extract gold and silver safely and protect the environment.

“We’ve been in Aroostook County for more than 60 years,” he said. “We’ve got a great environmental record. Best practices and technology is fundamental to us and fundamental to the region.”

Aroostook County economic developmental groups said streamlined regulations are needed to allow new businesses to open in the state. Unemployment near 10 percent in northern Maine has driven people to move away, said Bob Dorsey of Fort Fairfield, who spoke for the Aroostook Partnership for Progress.

“Moving expeditiously now will provide greatly needed hope,” he said.

But environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, say the bill is being rushed through the Legislature without thorough consideration.

Igor Sikorsky, who owns a sporting camp in northern Maine, said he’s not opposed to mining but the bill needs more time for consideration. He asked whether noise and light pollution would be a problem for sportsmen and others in the area.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine argues that such mines produce acid mine drainage that must be pumped out.

“How will they treat this water and where will they discharge it?” said the environmental group in a prepared statement. “As of yet, we have no answers to these and many other questions, but the mining proponents are telling legislators not to worry. We should worry, and we should be cautious.”

Hourihan, of J.D. Irving, said arsenic levels on the mountain are already high, and the company will be required to clean up the site before it is closed.

“You have to protect water quality,” he said.

 

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com