AUGUSTA — A legislative committee gave near-unanimous support Wednesday to a proposed overhaul of Maine’s mining regulations that has also won the backing of many of the state’s environmental organizations.

The proposal would ban open-pit mining as well as operations on state-owned public lands, in flood plains and under lakes, rivers or ponds. It also would prohibit underwater storage of mine waste and would require mining companies to create a trust fund large enough to cover the costs of cleaning up or treating any environmental contamination on a site for at least 100 years after closure of the mine.

The bill, L.D. 820, has been the subject of months of work by lawmakers, environmental advocates and representatives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. If passed by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage – which is never a guarantee – the bill would end a years-long stalemate over mining regulations that began when a Canadian company sought to loosen Maine’s overly restrictive rules to mine valuable minerals below Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-1 – with one lawmaker absent – in support of the bill. The measure now heads to the House and Senate floors, where supporters would need to muster two-thirds support in both chambers to overcome a potential LePage veto.

“This is what many of us and many environmental organizations have been asking for all along,” said Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the committee. “Support for these good amendments to the mining statute is not a switch in our position or our values, but rather an advancement of that goal – that is, stronger rules and protections for metallic mining in Maine that might be allowed in the future.”

The compromise on received support from a broad range of environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and the Environmental Priorities Coalition. The bill sponsor is Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, a former longtime leader of the NRC of Maine.

Yet a core group of vocal activists had been sharply critical of the environmental groups, arguing that the bill didn’t do enough to protect groundwater or provide sufficient “financial assurance” to cover the costs of an environmental catastrophe. They also questioned whether large-scale metallic mining can ever be done safely in Maine, a high-precipitation state whose tourism industry is built around a healthy environment.

Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, cited those concerns and others Wednesday before casting the solitary dissenting vote against the bill out of the 12 lawmakers present.

“I felt five years ago – when we passed a statute that we are now amending with L.D. 820 – that it was a bad policy choice then, and I still feel like it is a bad policy choice now,” said Harlow, one of only two lawmakers who have served on the committee since the mining debate began in 2012.

Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner at the DEP, said the department supported the measure.

“We feel it is a reasonable outcome,” Loyzim said. “It addresses the concerns that have been raised over the last several years. It is very protective but not completely prohibitive.”

The DEP’s work on the bill does not guarantee LePage will sign it, however. LePage supported an earlier set of mining rules from the DEP that were rejected by the Legislature because critics viewed them as inadequate to protect the environment. A Republican who holds the record in Maine for most vetoes, LePage will likely pay close attention to whether the bill is viewed by industry as so restrictive that it becomes a de facto ban on mining.

The five-year debate over mining in Maine was sparked by interest from J.D. Irving Ltd. – the New Brunswick company with major land holdings in Maine – in mining for gold, silver and other valuable metals under Bald Mountain. While supporters claimed a Bald Mountain mine would bring much-needed jobs and economic development to the region, opponents warned that the natural arsenic in the ground as well as the resulting “acid mine drainage” from mining operations would threaten the lakes, rivers and streams that are key to the area’s nature-based economy.

J.D. Irving has since stepped back – publicly, at least – from the Bald Mountain proposal, and several people suggested Wednesday that the ban on open-pit mining and other environmental regulations contained in the bill would likely make mining the site unfeasible.

“There are certainly places in Maine where, under this, you can mine,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who played a key role in crafting the bill and subsequent amendments. But Bennett said he believes Bald Mountain is “too dangerous to mine under any circumstances,” and that the proposed rules are adequately protective of other potential mining operations.

“This is a very strict set of laws that will require mining companies to jump through a lot of hoops and meet very stringent regulations,” Bennett said.

Lew Kingsbury, a Pittston retiree who has been heavily involved in the mining debate for years, was among the vocal critics of earlier renditions of L.D. 820. But he said the version endorsed by the committee Wednesday addressed his top concerns, including by banning open-pit mines, underwater storage of mine waste – also called “wet mine waste” – and tailings ponds.

“I believe with those … things in place, mining within a massive sulfide deposit will be nearly impossible,” Kingsbury said.

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

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