AUGUSTA — State regulations that would make it easier for mining companies to operate in Maine moved one step closer to completion Tuesday as the Board of Environmental Protection voted to post for public comment new changes to a draft mining rule.

The vote will give the public another chance – during a 10-day public comment period ending just before Christmas – to weigh in on the state’s newest rendition of proposed regulations for mining. All public responses will have to be made in writing; no additional public hearing will be held, said BEP Chairman Robert Foley.

The revised regulations – drafted by the Department of Environmental Protection at the behest of the BEP and the second set of regulations to emerge from the agency in the last four months – would further ease restrictions on mining companies’ methods of operation. The also would relax several environmental protections and financial assurances for cleanup and site restoration if a mine is closed.

“They’re certainly not tightening” several of the regulations, said Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, House chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which is next in line to review the proposed rule. She said she attended Tuesday’s session in Augusta to try to get a sense of the board’s thinking about the regulations.

“This (mining legislation) is a huge thing, one of the biggest things that’s come before the board ever, maybe,” Welsh said.

The further relaxation of controls over the mining industry “is consistent with the LePage administration’s goal of opening the state to resource extraction,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Appointees of Republican Gov. Paul LePage hold four of the seven seats on the BEP, including chairman Foley, a veteran of the insurance industry; retired engineer James W. Parker of Veazie; engineer Alvin Ahlers of North Yarmouth; and professor of environmental geology Tom Eastler of Farmington.

Bennett said the BEP’s proposed regulations serve the interests of the mining industry at the expense of virtually all the public concerns raised in earlier hearings.

Legislation passed in 2012 marked the first time in 20 years that Maine’s mining laws had been revised. That law directed the DEP to rewrite the existing mining regulations.

“This is a big deal … hugely important,” said BEP board member Susan Lessard, Hampden’s town manager. “If we don’t get it right, … we don’t get a second chance. Wrong is a long time fixing.”

“Some of these changes will provide additional flexibility to the department,” said Jessamine Logan, director of communications for the DEP.

The new guidelines, however, reflect the BEP’s goals and influence, not the department’s, she said.

The earlier set of proposed regulations, written by the DEP and its consultant, North Jackson, was opposed by more than 2,000 Maine residents and organizations and supported by 16, including three from Aroostook County.

There are currently no permit applications submitted to the DEP for mining in the state, but J.D. Irving Ltd. of New Brunswick has shown continuing interest in extraction of gold, silver, copper and zinc at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

If the revised regulations are approved, a mining company’s task would be rendered easier than under the DEP’s earlier proposed draft rule, namely:

The department had required more demanding financial assurances so that Maine taxpayers would not be left to foot the bill for failed or abandoned mines. The BEP-sponsored new rule would allow a variety of options for mining companies, including irrevocable letters of credit and incremental payments into a fund that could be used by the state if a mining operation ceased or was abandoned.

The DEP had urged that mining operations be kept at least 1.25 miles from any state or federal parks, protected bodies of water and reserved land. That protective corridor is proposed now to be cut to a quarter-mile unless the DEP deems a wider swath is needed.

The DEP had asked for a 30-year maximum cleanup period; the new proposal allows for indefinite extensions, in 20 year-increments, again at the department’s discretion.

This would enable cleanup to go on indefinitely, like the closed Callahan mine, where perpetual treatment appears inescapable, opponents said. The Callahan mine is a federal Superfund site in Brooksville. The mine operated from 1968 until 1972. Goose Pond Cove, the tidal estuary there, still has elevated levels of copper, zinc, cadmium and lead detectable in water, sediment and small fish.

Any written responses to the new draft mining rule must be submitted by 5 p.m. Dec. 23, said Logan. Comments should be sent to Jeffrey Crawford, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

A finalized draft rule is expected to be sent on to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee for review early in the new year.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com