The years-long debate over mining in Maine will return to the State House on Monday when lawmakers consider proposals to either rewrite the state’s environmental regulations or enact a total ban on metal mining.
Lawmakers have been debating the issue for more than four years but, to date, have yet to approve a new set of rules governing the siting and environmental standards for future metal mines. As a result, state officials say, inconsistencies in the current standards leave the state liable to lawsuits. Worse yet, they warn the current statute could prevent the Maine Department of Environmental Protection from adequately protecting natural resources if a company seeks a permit to mine for copper, silver or other valuable metals under Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain or in other lodes around the state.
The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold public hearings on seven different proposals, including the DEP’s latest attempt at mining rules. The hearing will be held Monday at 9 a.m. in Room 216 of the Cross Building.
In January, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously to provisionally adopt rules creating a multitiered permitting process for mines and obligating operators to provide “financial assurance” to cover the costs of closing the mine or cleaning up any environmental problems. But the proposed rules drew objections from more than 400 commenters during the BEP process – objections sure to be repeated to lawmakers who must approve the rules.
Yet potential alternatives appear to be dividing Maine’s environmental community as well.
One proposal by Rep. Ralph Chapman, a Brooksville Democrat heavily involved in the issue, would establish a moratorium on metal mining until new rules can be put in place. A separate bill by Chapman – whose district includes the former Callahan copper mine that is now a federal Superfund hazmat site – would create a Mining Advisory Panel to recommend a statutory and regulatory framework for mining by Dec. 31, 2019.
Meanwhile, a former leader of the state’s largest environmental organization is sponsoring a controversial bill that would allow mining but with tougher siting and water quality standards than those in the BEP proposal.
Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, served as executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine for roughly a quarter century and is in his first term in the Legislature. Carson’s bill, L.D. 820, aims to allow mining while addressing some of what critics said were weaknesses in the BEP proposal.
For instance, the bill would explicitly prohibit mining in or under lakes, rivers, streams or wetland as well as in state parks and historic sites, on public reserved lands and within the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The bill also would prohibit contamination of groundwater outside of the mining area – and limit contamination inside the area – while requiring would-be mine developers to provide “financial assurance” to cover the costs of “a worst-case catastrophic mining event or failure.”
The proposal has earned the endorsement of NRCM.
“L.D. 820 addresses many of the biggest problems with the 2017 mining rules, particularly those the Department of Environmental Protection has repeatedly claimed it cannot address on its own through rulemaking,” NRCM said in a written position on the bill. “The provisions in L.D. 820, combined with key changes to the 2017 mining rules … would give Maine strong and clear protections from mining pollution.”
Carson’s bill is unlikely to satisfy some environmental organizations and mining opponents, however. So Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, is sponsoring a bill that would simply prohibit any large-scale metal mining in Maine.
A veteran of the legislative debate over mining, Duchesne has supported previous versions of the mining rules to emerge from the committee. But Duchesne said he would also be satisfied if the Legislature decided to prohibit metal mining. After years of legislative deadlocks on the issue, Duchesne said he wants to see the issue clearly resolved one way or another because the current statute is unclear to everyone.
“From my personal perspective, I’m always in favor of strong regulation but it has to be fair regulation,” said Duchesne. “I can’t justify confused regulation where businesses can’t even decide how to move forward.”
In 2012, the Legislature directed the Department of Environmental Protection and the BEP to craft new rules to replace regulations so stringent that no new mines had opened in Maine in decades. J.D. Irving Ltd., the Canadian corporation that is one of Maine’s largest landowners, was interested in extracting the significant of reserves of gold, silver and copper believed to be underneath Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Supporters argued the project could support hundreds of good-paying jobs in an area of northern Maine struggling with high unemployment.
The BEP spent months working on the rules only to see them rejected by lawmakers, who directed the department to return with a new proposal. Gov. Paul LePage – a vocal advocate for relaxing Maine’s stringent mining regulations – vetoed that bill. And a subsequent attempt by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to craft a new compromise failed to pass the House and Senate, creating the current regulatory limbo.
The issue has dragged on so long that Irving has reportedly lost interest in developing the Bald Mountain site, at least for now. But Bald Mountain – a remote, wooded location roughly 35 miles west of Presque Isle – inevitably comes up during debates.
Opponents predict that the type of open pit mines used to extract such metals could contaminate rivers and streams that support the region’s current economic engine – nature-based tourism and outdoor recreation – while potentially leaving behind a costly, toxic legacy. Mining advocates, meanwhile, say modern mines are cleaner and safer than their predecessors and that strong regulations will hold any companies accountable for contamination.
The Maine Geological Survey lists a total of 10 sites with “significant known metallic mineral deposits” scattered around the state. Dozens of other known deposits have yet to be fully explored in part because the mining laws in place prior to 2012 were so stringent that they discouraged investment by the industry.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: