Lawmakers are one step closer to allowing metallic mineral mining – one of the riskiest, most toxic and financially irresponsible industries in the world – to operate right here in Maine.
Why would lawmakers be lured to approve such a thing? Because some have been seduced by the “promise” of new jobs in rural Maine.
In the words of President Reagan, “Here they go again.”
How did we get here? One of the legacies of the 2010 election, when Republicans controlled both the 125th Legislature and the Blaine House, was a looser law that enabled metallic mineral mining in Maine.
The carrot was replacing rural jobs in flagging industries like paper, manufacturing and logging. Republicans assured us that a set of rules drafted and administered by Gov. Paul LePage’s Department of Environmental Protection would protect us.
And it’s these rules that the Legislature has been wrestling with ever since. Defeated in the 126th Legislature, the mining industry and LePage are now working the 127th Legislature. Basic science makes metallic mineral mining in Maine a fundamentally risky proposition.
According to the Maine Geological Survey, the 10 ore deposits located all over our state contain high levels of sulfides. When sulfides combine with oxygen and water, they produce poisonous sulfuric acid. In dry climates like Nevada’s, minimizing sulfides’ exposure to water is a manageable task. In wet climates like Maine’s, which is projected to grow even wetter with climate change, mixing sulfides with water is inevitable. Sulfuric acid will no doubt enter our environment as soon as the digging begins.
I serve on the Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, the bipartisan group charged with reviewing the flawed mining rules in detail. My first goal for this work is to protect the natural resources on which much of Maine’s economy depends. To this end, several committee members and I have searched for and requested models of rules for safe and responsible metallic mineral mining in climates similar to Maine’s. Ironically, here’s where all parties actually agree: Such model mines do not exist, nor do the rules that govern them.
Our next step in this complex and highly technical task was to query experts in the field. But the only “experts” who had actual mining experience were paid by J.D. Irving, the Canadian parent company of Aroostook Resources, the subsidiary Irving created for the purpose of metallic mineral mining.
With high levels of ground water and abundant surface waters near Maine’s ore bodies, all parties agree that sulfuric acid will contaminate our waters.
However, mining interests have tried to assure us that the wastewater will be “treated” or “contained.” When those claims of reassurance come with the hope of jobs in rural Maine, citizen legislators are tempted to trust them. Nevertheless, the prospect of widespread water pollution poses an immeasurable risk to existing homegrown industries such as agriculture, tourism, fishing and hunting. And with Maine’s clean water and its very brand on the line, we need to do more than trust.
My second goal for this work is to protect Maine taxpayers from the potentially massive cleanup costs associated with a mine failure – in the range of $300 million to $500 million, based on recent failures. If you look at mining across the globe, you’ll see far too many examples of mining companies leaving the scene of a disaster, with taxpayers having to clean up the environmental devastation left behind.
And we don’t have to search across the globe for an example. Did you know that Maine taxpayers continue to pay $1 million annually toward the ongoing cleanup of the Callahan Mine in Brooksville, a Superfund site? That’s not a mistake anyone wants to repeat.
To this end, the natural resources committee and the DEP again needed outside expertise, this time regarding the intricate financial instruments designed to inoculate Maine taxpayers from potentially massive cleanup costs. None of us were well versed in such things as letters of credit, industrial insurance products, surety bonds and so on. Unfortunately, none of that expertise was brought to the table. In the end, the section of the rules on protecting Maine’s taxpayers from cleanup costs was written by J.D. Irving’s lobbyist and accepted by a majority of natural resources committee members.
In reviewing, amending and voting on the Maine DEP’s rules governing metallic mineral mining, neither of my two essential goals was met. I remain deeply concerned about mining polluting our waters and damaging our economy. And Maine taxpayers could still be on the hook for the massive cleanup costs of a potential mining disaster. Too much risk remains for the Maine Legislature to approve these rules.