AUGUSTA — A proposal to rewrite state regulations to streamline the permitting process for open-pit mining met with skepticism and impassioned opposition from scores of people who turned out Thursday for a hearing by the state Board of Environmental Protection.

More than 100 people testified on the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal, with opponents outnumbering supporters by a 5-to-1 ratio.

Opponents said the new regulations would not go far enough to guarantee protection of water, air, land, wildlife habitats and communities — particularly in Aroostook County, where J.D. Irving of New Brunswick has shown interest in mining at Bald Mountain.

Supporters of the proposed rule changes said that a mining operation could provide desperately needed jobs for the county’s depressed economy.

The new regulations would apply to all potential mining locations in Maine.

Irving has not submitted a formal mining request, plan or permit application to the DEP, state officials have said, but company representatives have said for months that Irving is investigating the potential of extracting gold, silver, copper and other metals at Bald Mountain.

Estimates of the economic benefits of an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain have been hotly debated, and that debate continued at Thursday’s hearing.

Job projections from the state and from Irving have ranged from less than 20 to 700. Critics said those estimates have never been substantiated and they aren’t convinced that Aroostook County has the work force or skills for the better-paying jobs at a mine.

Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for Irving, stood by estimates of 300 direct jobs and 400 indirect jobs, and a projection of $126 million in state and local taxes, as economic benefits to Maine.

He said Thursday night that Irving has a 65-year history in forestry in Maine and is not looking for “a short-term black eye” with a poorly developed or implemented mining plan.

Hourihan said the company is seeking scientifically based regulation that would outline expected outcomes, such as no water pollution and no discharge, before evaluating the mining potential at Bald Mountain.

“We would like to have a look at it … to see if there’s a feasible mine, but we don’t know,” Hourihan said.

Before any decision could be considered, he said, laws reflecting changes in mining in the past few decades would have to be put in effect.

“The old law was very prescriptive and limited … drastically outdated,” he said. “We think the right idea is to get modern laws and rules in place.”

The proposed rule was developed after the Legislature passed a law in 2012 directing the DEP to update and streamline mining standards in Maine, which had not been modified in 20 years. Two companies investigated at that time and then abandoned plans to mine Bald Mountain.

The DEP, with the help of mining industry consultant North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich., produced the draft rule after more than nine months of work. It now must be reviewed by the Board of Environmental Protection, which will hold a public meeting to discuss Thursday’s testimony, as well as written comments due Oct. 28 and any questions its members may have.

The draft rule could be sent back to the DEP for further work before Jan. 10, when it is due to be sent to the Legislature.

opponents have many questions

At the hearing, Shelly Mountain of Mapleton expressed the feelings of many Aroostook County residents, saying she and others are not absolutely opposed to mining but question the accuracy of job estimates, remediation commitments and financial responsibility for mining companies to support cleanup for as long as it could be needed.

“I think the job estimates are grossly exaggerated … and they’re not sustainable jobs, either,” she said.

Urging the board to revisit the basic provisions of the rule change, she said: “We don’t need any empty promises. … Without a strong mining law, mining will devastate Aroostook County.”

“Our town is starving for economic opportunity,” countered Barb Pitcairn, a Realtor from Portage. She supported the rule change as a means to help financially strapped households and businesses in the county. “Our wages are below the state and federal averages,” Pitcairn said.

“Mining practices have come a long way in 50 years,” she said.

“This is certainly an opportunity to take a really good look at what we can do to foster more opportunities, more business,” said Phil Daggett, owner of Hewes Brook Lodge, a sporting facility about 15 miles from Bald Mountain, The Associated Press reported. “If there is ever a time that we need to step forward and work this issue, it’s now.”

But many people’s fears were not quelled during the day-long session.

The changes would ease some restrictions on the industry — for example, by relaxing requirements for environmental protection, said state Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.

“The board should greatly strengthen the rule’s provisions protecting groundwater,” McCabe said. “It should also not allow DEP to permit mines that will require more than 10 years of post-closure treatment.”

The proposed change would allow 30 years for remediation of a mining site, which critics say is longer than most mining operations remain solvent.

Allowing such a long period for treatment of a site after a mine closes would greatly increase the environmental risks, McCabe said, and would add to the probability that the public would eventually have to pay.

McCabe argued for certified financial assurance that a mining company would be able to pay for closure and remediation, and would provide 100 percent of that financial assurance, not the 50 percent stipulated in the proposed rule.

Lawmakers and residents at the hearing said the board and the DEP must seek expert advice on whether the new regulations would be strong enough to preserve Maine’s environment. Of special concern were the mostly pristine wilderness areas around Bald Mountain, where tourism, brook trout fishing, camping, hiking and other outdoor activities are critical to the economy and identity.

Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, a research physicist formerly affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University, said more technical analysis is needed. He questioned the employment benefits of mining.

“This is not a jobs-versus-environment issue,” he said. ‘It’s (about) the management of environmental risk for the purpose of extracting mineral resources. Really, there are next to no jobs.”

more thorough analysis sought

The Natural Resources Council of Maine said the DEP must address public concerns about the transparency of its process and whether the rules would adequately protect the environment.

“The public has been very consistently skeptical of changing the mining rule for Irving,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the council. “There is overwhelming public concern, and that is clear again today.”

Bennett said his group wants to see good rules for mining, not a stop to the opportunity for safe mining.

Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, a member of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said the panel is concerned that mining companies have a tendency to fail over time and leave costly environmental problems in their wake.

“The problem of making mistakes in mining is that there are no do-overs,” said Cooper, “so we have to err on the side of caution.”

Chapman said the rulemaking process has, in a sense, run backward, with the DEP and the Legislature trying to craft legislation in haste in 2012, then drafting new regulations and finally releasing them without rigorous scrutiny from first-rate professionals.

“What’s really needed here is information of a highly technical nature,” Chapman said, echoing months of requests for more information from the DEP and expert help from scientists who specialize in mining challenges.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:ncairn@pressherald.com