The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has mining industry documents that conclude that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County would likely pollute rivers, lakes and streams, according to a report issued Thursday by an environmental group.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine released the report, “Bald Mountain Mining Risks: Hidden From the Public,” showing that the DEP has 20-year-old studies from two mining companies analyzing the potential of open-pit mining at Bald Mountain and finding that sulfuric acid and arsenic would pollute the Fish River watershed.
The report — the council’s second within a month that criticizes the DEP’s handling of environmental issues and public information — comes a week before a public hearing by the Board of Environmental Protection on proposed rules developed over the past 18 months by the DEP and its mining industry consultant, North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich. Rule changes are required under 2012 mining legislation endorsed by J.D. Irving Ltd. of New Brunswick, which has publicly expressed interest in mining at Bald Mountain.
The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. next Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center.
Irving has described the Bald Mountain project as a 500-acre site with a 100-acre open pit, valued by some estimates at billions of dollars and offering the prospect of as many as 700 direct and indirect jobs in economically strapped northern Maine. The site would be mined for gold, silver and copper deposits.
The DEP and state lawmakers have proposed revised regulations to streamline, or ease, the permitting process for open-pit mining in the state. Any change would need approval from the BEP and the Legislature, said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council in Augusta.
The council’s report draws on studies done by consultants for two mining companies that pursued permits in the 1980s and 1990s for open-pit mining at Bald Mountain, said Bennett.
The documents, obtained by the council and Lindsay Newland Bowker, director of Bowker Associates in Stonington, through Freedom of Access Act requests, include repeated warnings that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain would be very risky.
Both mining companies — the Swedish company Boliden Resources and the now-defunct Black Hawk Mining Inc. — abandoned their plans largely because of the potential environmental risks and difficulties with operations at the Bald Mountain ore deposit, Bennett said.
“This is a really dangerous site,” he said. “And once groundwater contamination starts, it’s incredibly difficult to control.”
DEP: COUNCIL REPORT CONTAINS LIES
Heather Parent, policy director for the DEP, said the council’s report includes “flat-out lies and misrepresentations.”
The DEP’s technical staff has been involved in every step of the rulemaking process and its expertise was made available to lawmakers many times, including at legislative work sessions, she said. Staff members, particularly those with specialized training in water quality, were not impeded in giving their input, Parent said.
“They helped us re-craft the law to make it more protective,” she said.
The 20-year-old studies are outdated, she said, and relied on technology that has since changed. She said the DEP never released the studies before because “nobody asked for them.”
The DEP is working on regulations that would apply to the entire state, not just one site, Parent said. “We were not focused on Bald Mountain,” she said.
Irving has not approached the DEP about permitting for mining at Bald Mountain, Parent said. She said she is not aware of the company having any discussion about mining or new regulations with anyone in the DEP.
Bennett said technical experts for the DEP and the two mining companies have repeatedly concluded that an open-pit operation at Bald Mountain would by extremely difficult, risky and costly because of high concentrations of sulfur and arsenic.
“Our report shows that DEP is fully aware that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain could have huge environmental impacts, with relatively small and short-lived economic returns, yet DEP has failed to share this information with lawmakers and the public,” he said.
Bennett said earlier estimates by the other mining companies set the likely number of jobs at 75 to 130.
risks from heavy metals
When exposed to air and water, sulfur forms sulfuric acid, a toxic component in car batteries, fertilizers, wastewater treatment and oil refining — and one of the most widely used industrial manufacturing chemicals.
In the mining process, the acid leaches out metals — including arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, copper and zinc — that are naturally in the rock and causes them to seep into groundwater, rivers and lakes, Bennett said. Many of the heavy metals are extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms, he said.
Bowker, an independent environmental risk manager who has studied Maine’s mining statute, rules, history and operations, said, “There cannot be any acid drainage.
“It doesn’t say that in our statute. This (proposed) rule is an insult to the public interest,” he said. “Treating this as even close to a final mining rule is like calling a can of Campbell’s alphabet soup the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the council’s report underscores the need to ensure that mining is done only under the highest standards. He said the draft rules are inadequate.
“This troubling report tells us that the LePage administration may be putting our economy at risk for far fewer jobs than the project claims it will generate,” McCabe said.
Although the report focuses on Bald Mountain, there is potential for such issues to arise elsewhere in Maine, McCabe said. There are significant mineral deposits in other parts of Aroostook County, and in Franklin, Hancock, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties.
a push for tighter controls
Opponents of the DEP’s proposed revisions — including environmental advocates, mining experts and engineering specialists — have questioned whether the new rules would protect the public and the environment, and expressed concern that they will favor Irving’s plans instead.
The environmental risks should prompt more vigorous monitoring and regulation, not less, said Bennett, with the Natural Resources Council. “But DEP never let its technical folks testify on this issue. Essentially, they never spoke out to the Legislature,” he said.
The debate over the rules centers on how much protection will be needed to preserve water quality in the area around Bald Mountain, which is prime recreational wilderness and habitat for brook trout, Bennett said.
The Natural Resources Council contends that stricter controls and greater monitoring are needed, and a collaboration of the Maine Conservation Alliance, Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club has also expressed concerns over the proposed regulations.
The group, operating through its website, Maine Mining Watch, has collected 450 signatures since Monday, asking the state to make sure that the rules are strengthened to preserve the environment and protect taxpayers from costs associated with cleanup of closed mines, said Maureen Drouin, spokeswoman for the group and executive director of Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine Conservation Alliance.
The full report and background materials are online at www.nrcm.org.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:[email protected]