AUGUSTA — The battle over revitalizing metal and mineral mining in Maine continued Monday at the State House, setting the stage for a vote in the Legislature that will pit some of the state’s major business interests against environmental groups.
At issue are new regulations to streamline the process of getting permits and mining for minerals and precious metals in Maine. The proposed rules are designed to revive an industry that has been dormant since 1991, but are driven specifically by the prospect of extracting metals and minerals from Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, a project backed by New Brunswick-based J.D. Irving Ltd., the state’s largest landowner.
The involvement of Irving, which owns the Bald Mountain property, has heightened the tension and politics over the proposed rules.
Business groups such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce are backing the new rules, arguing that mining could be a boon for the state and one of its poorest counties. Environmental groups have made defeating the regulations a top priority.
Nick Bennett, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told lawmakers on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Monday that metal mining can release sulfuric acid that can pollute nearby rivers and streams, killing fish and marine life. He said the long-term effects of mining could outlast a company’s interest in a site, so Maine taxpayers could eventually be on the hook for a cleanup.
The rules proposed in L.D. 1772 are subject to final approval by the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage. The LePage administration supports the regulations. Jeffrey Crawford, with the Department of Environmental Protection, told lawmakers Monday that the changes would provide a comprehensive framework for mining to proceed in Maine while protecting natural resources.
Most of those who testified Monday had a different view. Forty-eight of the 52 people who signed up to speak at the public hearing opposed the rules. The hearing was specific to the regulation changes, not J.D. Irving’s interest in Bald Mountain. However, the proposed mining there was discussed repeatedly.
Bennett said the company’s interest in Bald Mountain is the reason the Legislature and the LePage administration have attached so much urgency to the rules.
“The Bald Mountain deposit and others like it have been present for hundreds of millions of years,” he said. “They will be present after Maine develops mining rules that will protect our environment and taxpayers, even if that takes time.”
The prospect of mining on Bald Mountain arose in 2012, when a bill mandated that the DEP rewrite its mining rules. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the bill, and LePage signed it. Several Democrats, including the Aroostook County delegation, also backed the proposal.
The bill was one of the most intensely lobbied measures of the session, drawing over $85,000 in lobbying activity in a single month, according to reports filed with the state ethics commission. Aroostook Timberlands, a subsidiary of JD Irving Ltd., was the biggest spender, paying lobbyists $73,348 over one month.
Since then, the focus has shifted to the rule changes, the first draft of which was released in August. In January, the Board of Environmental Protection unanimously endorsed the changes.
Environmental groups have continued to urge lawmakers to kill the new regulations and start over. They have focused on several provisions, including one to require mine operators to ensure that discharges from closed mining sites meet water quality standards “as soon as practicable,” but in most cases, no longer than 30 years.
Critics say that operators could allow certain types of contaminants to persist longer than 30 years, as long as the time period is defined and the DEP approves.
Decades have passed since mining last occurred in Maine, and Ben Gilman, speaking for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers that the lack of mining could be attributed to redundant and overly prohibitive rules. Gilman said revisions are long overdue, and the proposal to mine Bald Mountain could produce 700 high-paying jobs for Aroostook County.
The metal there could be worth as much as $7 billion, according to John S. Cummings, a geologist from Texas who discovered deposits there in the 1970s.
Opponents say the ecological and long-term costs will dwarf the economic benefits. They also took issue with changes that would allow open pit mines next to, or on, some lands owned by the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, or adjacent to conservation land held by land trusts, conservation groups or municipalities.
The proposed rules include a one-mile buffer zone between mine sites and protected lands, including national and state parks, state-owned lands and historic sites. But a mining operator could reduce that buffer to a quarter-mile if it demonstrated that the property contained topographical protections.
Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, said the proposed surface and groundwater protections would be too weak “to protect Maine from a perpetual treatment time bomb and costs, and too weak to keep Maine from paying the price tag for mitigating the likely acid and arsenic ecological disaster.”
Johnson also took issue with a provision that precluded review of the rules by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a provision that would prohibit citizen groups from intervening.
“I am here to make plain that expecting to slip environmentally disastrous rules into place without EPA review, and disenfranchising citizen groups as intervenors, are both unacceptable and disreputable,” Johnson said. “Anything which would be destroyed by the truth being known, deserves to be destroyed.”
Lawmakers will continue to review L.D. 1772 before voting the bill out of committee.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: