AUGUSTA — The heated public debate about mining in Maine resumed Monday as lawmakers attempt to craft a compromise on a bill that could open the door to mining at Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain and other sites around the state.

After more than a half-dozen work sessions and hours of discussion, members of a legislative committee have proposed regulatory changes that supporters argue could revive Maine’s dormant mineral mining industry while still protecting the environment. There remains significant opposition, however, to loosening Maine’s mining rules and distrust of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Paul LePage.

That distrust was clear when, at the start of Monday’s public hearing, Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, denounced proposed language allowing the DEP to complete work on the mining rules without soliciting additional public input.

“That is tantamount to handing a signed blank check to a known check forger,” Chapman, whose district includes the former Callahan mine that is now a federal Superfund site, told fellow members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Chapman originally introduced a bill, L.D. 750, as a moratorium on metallic mining in Maine along with a lengthy list of requirements for future rules. But as allowed under legislative rules, the committee stripped his bill and replaced it with a lengthy revision of the DEP’s original proposal.

The revised bill lays out some site restrictions on mines – such as a prohibition within one mile of public lands – as well as monitoring, closure and cleanup requirements on mining companies. For instance, the proposal would mandate that mining companies create a $10 million “emergency response fund” and require at least 20 years of water treatment after the mine is closed.

DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho praised committee members for their work on tweaking the department’s original January proposal, saying the changes “have made them more clear and easier to understand for all involved.”

“Most of these changes provide for clarity, which we think is important for any potential applicant, to us at the DEP and to the public as well,” Aho said.

Opponents disagreed – sometimes vociferously – and suggested lawmakers were caving to pressure from the industry or the LePage administration.

“Over that period of time, I have lost faith in the committee’s ability to stand up and protect the environment from the mining interests,” said Betsy Bishop Terrell, whose family has owned land on Carr Pond in Aroostook County for more than a century.

New interest in mining

The push to revise Maine’s 24-year-old mining rules began three years ago at the behest of the New Brunswick-based J.D. Irving Ltd., which is the state’s largest landowner. Irving owns the land and mineral rights on Bald Mountain, a remote spot 35 miles west of Presque Isle that, according to one 2008 estimate, could contain up to $6 billion to $7 billion in gold, silver and other minerals. The company has said a Bald Mountain mine could create up to 300 jobs in an area with a depressed economy.

The revised rules would loosen some regulations and change where mining can occur.

But any new rules would apply statewide, and the Maine Geological Survey lists 10 sites of “significant known metallic mineral deposits” in the state, scattered from the midcoast to the western mountains.

Environmental and outdoor recreation groups, along with some local landowners, fought back and blocked implementation of the DEP’s proposal. While the Environment and Natural Resources Committee is divided on the current proposals – with Chapman and several other members opposed – the committee appears likely to recommend overhauling existing regulations that have all but shut down commercial mining for minerals in Maine.

The committee’s proposed revisions drew qualified support from several business groups and those working in the geology or hydrogeology fields.

Theresa Fowler, who heads the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, said modern mining techniques and today’s tougher regulatory environment will ensure that any mine that opens on Bald Mountain will not end up with taxpayers footing a massive cleanup bill like they have at the Callahan mine in Brooksville.

“I get frustrated when I come to these hearings because I hear all about the disasters at Callahan and Blue Hill,” Fowler said. “We know a lot more than we did 100 years ago.”

Others suggested the committee’s draft may go too far.

Peter Maher, an environmental engineer, said lawmakers will be sending a clear signal to potential mine operators with this bill. Maher said he believes most of the proposals are reasonable for the industry and will protect the environment. But he said the requirements of a $10 million emergency fund as well as “financial assurance” for a host of other potential impacts not relevant to those sites go too far.

“This type of requirement, I believe, would seriously discourage any mining company from proposing any type of mine in the state of Maine,” Maher said.

The committee is slated to hold additional work sessions on the bills on Wednesday and Thursday.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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