AUGUSTA – In 2006, when Lynn Taylor bought Coffin’s General Store in Portage Lake, considered the oldest continually running country store in Maine, she had four cash registers, 12 employees and six grades of gas.
Today, although she is still open every day of the year, the store — which has been in business since 1902 — is down to a single cash register, one full-time employee and one “very part-time” worker, Taylor said. And she sells only three grades of gas.
She’s convinced that mining at Bald Mountain in northern Maine could turn that trend around, she told state legislators Monday at a public hearing on proposals to repeal, limit or otherwise change Maine’s year-old mining law.
But not everyone agrees.
Taylor was one of nearly 100 Maine legislators, residents, lobbyists and researchers who crammed into the public hearing to weigh in on a law passed in 2012 that altered mining regulations in the state and, some argue, relaxed the permitting process. Opponents have argued that it was rushed into law without sufficient opportunity for public comment, and that it lacks adequate protection for the environment, water and air quality.
Proposed changes would address various environmental and fiscal concerns that have surfaced since the Department of Environmental Protection began working late last year on drafting new rules for permitting and mining operations in the state. The proposals include L.D. 1059, An Act to Protect Maine’s Environment and Natural Resources Jeopardized by Mining, which would repeal last year’s law; L.D. 1302, An Act to Amend Maine Metallic Mineral Mining to Protect Water Quality; and L.D. 1324, An Act to Protect Local Communities When a Mining Project is Terminated.
Many of those appearing Monday before the committee supported L.D. 1302, sponsored by House Majority Whip Jeff M. McCabe, D-Skowhegan, which calls for four revisions to the law that would:
n Seek to improve protection of groundwater at mining sites by requiring that the operation not pollute groundwater.
n Provide financial protection for taxpayers by requiring applicants to cover the cost of a third-party evaluation of how much money would be needed to safely close a proposed mine.
n Require that a mining operation be designed so that it would not require perpetual treatment and maintenance if it closed.
n Require any applicant to identify a mine elsewhere in the U.S., in a climate and geologic setting similar to Maine, that operated at least 10 years without polluting groundwater or surface water.
There was little support for the bill that would repeal last year’s mining law. Most speakers, including supporters and opponents of allowing mining, focused their comments on the need to move cautiously before permitting mining operations to ensure there was no irreparable, continuing environmental damage.
One key point of contention at the hearing was whether to allow the DEP to continue drafting the rules, or to put amendments in place first. The new rules, which are being written by the DEP in consultation with a private contractor that has ties to the mining industry, will apply to any company that applies for a permit to carry out metallic mineral mining in the state.
No applications have been received so far, DEP officials have reported, but J.D. Irving of New Brunswick has expressed interest in mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Although most of the debate on open-pit mining in Maine has centered on Bald Mountain, other areas of the state — including the western foothills, the Moosehead Lake area and Cobscook Bay — have been shown to hold metallic mineral deposits.
Both opponents and supporters of mining law revisions have acknowledged that the long-foundering economy in northern Maine could be boosted by mining, which would create jobs and generate indirect income for ancillary businesses, such as restaurants, motels and retail stores.
Estimates have projected from 150 to 700 jobs around Bald Mountain, a region where unemployment ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent, said Bob Dorsey, president and CEO of Aroostook Partnership for Progress.
“I don’t know if (the law) will hurt the environment or that it will help the economy,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, one of the sponsors of the original bill. Jackson opposed any changes, but promised Monday that he would fight the new law if the rulemaking process does not result in adequate environmental protections.
“There’s a balance and a trade-off,” he said. “The environment of Maine must be protected.”
Numerous advocacy and environmental organizations, including the Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Maine Audubon, lined up to ask the committee to review the new mining law and consider a range of options to curb what they see as the potentially damaging environmental impacts of mining.
Several environmentalists were in accord with backers of the new mining law, saying they did not want to kill the possibility of mining in Maine, but wanted to be certain the job was done right.
“I suspect that mining can be done pretty safely — if you have the money,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council. “It’s very expensive.”
If mining cannot be done safely at a cost that is acceptable to the companies, that may affect their decision to come to Maine, Bennett said, “but that’s not our fault. The provisions in L.D. 1302 are steps … and reasonable.”
Some mining opponents backed a moratorium on the industry’s operations in the state and asked the committee to make certain that mining proposals are thoroughly reviewed by experts in geology and engineering who have no ties and no financial incentives toward specific findings.
“Be extremely careful,” said Elery Keene, a retired engineer and planner from Winslow. “Employ someone who is independent. … Clean water is more important than gold, silver and copper.”
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