AUGUSTA — A LePage administration push to rewrite Maine’s mining regulations ran into a wall of opposition Thursday from conservation groups, former state environmental employees and other critics who said the latest version, while improved, would still jeopardize the state’s environment.

For the third time in as many years, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has proposed major changes to Maine’s metallic mining rules that could help revive a long-dormant industry. Yet Thursday’s public hearing before the Board of Environmental Protection played out much like previous proceedings.

The hearing was dominated by opponents, who found fault with the DEP’s rules even though significant changes had been made to address concerns raised when lawmakers rejected the proposal last year.

“These rules are too important to just say they are better,” said Jennifer Burns Gray of the Maine Audubon Society. “We really need to get them right. There is too much at risk.”

DEP staff said the proposed rules – contained in a nearly 100-page draft released last month – would strengthen protections for Maine’s natural resources while providing mine operators with a predictable permitting path. The proposal also would address inconsistencies or gaps created when the Legislature passed a mining bill in 2012 but then rejected two rule-making proposals.

The department rules would:

• Require detailed monitoring and inspection plans.

• Mandate applicants set up a pre-paid account – known as “financial assurance” – to cover any clean-up or reclamation costs.

• Prohibit mining within one mile of state or national parks, wildlife refuges or great ponds deemed to have outstanding or significant scenic qualities.

• Prohibit the use of “wet mine waste” sites after closure and require mine operators to clean up a property within 10 years of mine closure.

Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner at the DEP, said a mining company could submit an application today and current laws allow the department to issue a permit. But those rules lack specific standards and Loyzim and other DEP staff argued that the department’s proposals are more protective of the environment.

“If someone comes in tomorrow looking for a permit, we don’t have specific standards to hold them to,” Loyzim said. “We all have the opportunity to make our rule better. Remember, that rule exists. Not adopting changes to it doesn’t make that rule go away.”

FORMER DEP EMPLOYEES OPPOSED

But such statements have done little to appease opponents, many of whom want a moratorium or an outright prohibition on mining practices they view as a threat to Maine’s natural resources, environmental health and outdoor economy.

No one outside of state government spoke in support of the proposal Thursday. Meanwhile, several former DEP employees spoke against it.

Susan Davies, a retiree who helped oversee water quality standards at the DEP for more than two decades, described the latest version as “trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

Matt Scott, a retired chief biologist with the DEP and former chairman of the Board of Environmental Protection, said in many cases it would be “a miracle” for a mine to produce wastewater discharges that did not degrade the water quality of Maine’s highest-classification streams.

“The after-effects of mining are historically forever,” Scott said.

In 2013-14, the Board of Environmental Protection spent months working on new rules proposed by the DEP and eventually sent an amended version to the Legislature for approval, as required. But lawmakers tossed out the board’s rules in 2014 and directed the DEP to return with a new proposal. Gov. Paul LePage – a vocal advocate for relaxing Maine’s stringent mining regulations – vetoed that bill.

Then last year, a bill crafted by members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee after months of work failed to pass both chambers by substantial margins. That has left the issue in a sort of regulatory limbo.

Although the proposed DEP rules would apply statewide, several speakers during the morning session brought up Bald Mountain, a site 35 miles west of Presque Isle that has been at the center of the four-year debate. J.D. Irving Ltd. had wanted to mine under Bald Mountain, which is believed to contain significant deposits of gold, silver and other minerals.

Leaders of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians urged the board to reject mining rules they fear could harm natural resources tribal members depend upon for food, medicine and to sustain their culture. The Maliseets are located in Aroostook County and own a water bottling plant just eight miles from Bald Mountain.

“The effects of mining would lead to devastation to all that is important to our practices, our traditions and our ways of life,” Maliseet Tribal Chief Brenda Commander said. “Mining and mining exploration, especially near water, could disturb or more likely destroy our valuable and even sacred cultural resources.”

Critics panned the proposed rules because they could still allow mining in floodplain areas and for allowing “wet mine waste storage,” which entails covering mine waste with water to keep it from oxidizing and leaching acid mine waste. Once that waste is under water, they argued, it will be even more difficult to clean up.

Christopher Sewall, a Phippsburg resident and Maine native who formerly worked on mining and natural resources issues with the Shoshone tribe in Nevada, said that state has zero-discharge policies for mines. Yet those mines consistently had water contamination problems, despite the fact that they were operated by some of the world’s largest mining companies and located in one of the driest states. Maine has a much wetter climate with waters renowned for their quality, he noted.

“Why we would consider an industry that seeks to damage that water and contaminate is beyond me,” Sewall said.

PUBLIC LANDS ISSUE

Opponents also pointed to language in the proposed rules that suggests mining could take place on Maine’s public lands if another government agency with jurisdiction over those lands – such as the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry – allows it.

Jeff Reardon, Maine brook trout project director for Trout Unlimited, said the public lands are a “huge” issue.

“Most of these lands were purchased (by the state) for conservation … and if the department says mining is allowed on them and the department can’t do anything about it, that is an issue that needs to be fixed,” Reardon said.

Nick Bennett, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, credited the department for improving some aspects of the proposed rules, including prohibiting “perpetual care” of mine sites after closure. But he said the proposal hasn’t changed enough.

“There is a very good chance it is going to end up in the same place, which is a big fight in the Legislature and ultimately (the rules’) rejection,” Bennett said.