AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would ban open-pit mines as well as mining on state-owned lands or under lakes and rivers.

Senators voted 34-0 in support of the latest attempt to revamp environmental regulations after years of debate about whether metallic mining can be done in a way that protects Maine’s lakes, rivers and groundwater.

The bill, L.D. 820, would prohibit open-pit mining, underwater storage of mine waste and require companies to create a trust fund to cover the costs of cleaning up or treating any environmental contamination for at least 100 years after a mine’s closure.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee had endorsed the bill on a 12-1 vote.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, said he believes the legislation will protect both clean water and Maine taxpayers. The prohibition on open-pit mining would eliminate “the most dangerous, the most polluting form of mining in our country,” while the financial-assurance portion of the bill would send a strong message that the state is very serious about protecting its natural resources from any contamination.

“This bill has been a work in progress not for the four-plus months that we have been in session for 2017 but for the past five years, and some would say longer,” said Carson, the former longtime head of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

NRCM was one of several environmental groups that worked closely with lawmakers on language in the version that received preliminary approval in the Senate. Unlike previous attempts to rewrite Maine’s mining regulations, L.D. 820 has been endorsed by environmental organizations such as NRCM, Trout Unlimited and the Environmental Priorities Coalition, although some environmental activists and lawmakers remain opposed to the bill.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said the reality is that most people use valuable metals on a regular basis, whether in jewelry or in electronics. But those are often mined in places with lax environmental laws.

“But now we have taken the responsibility and said, ‘We will allow mining here but you have a high hurdle to reach,’ ” said Saviello, co-chairs the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, which spent months working on the bill. “We will allow it, but do it right or not at all.”

The bill could face a tougher challenge from some Republicans in the Maine House and among some Democrats who believe the regulations are not tough enough on mining companies. And while the Maine Department of Environmental Protection endorsed the bill, supporters are hoping to lock down two-thirds majorities in both chambers to overcome a potential veto from Gov. Paul LePage.

The bill would apply statewide, but much of the debate over mining has centered on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, which is believed to hold significant quantities of gold, silver and other valuable metals. It is unclear whether mining at Bald Mountain would be economically feasible, however, if the companies were prohibited from using open-pit mines.

The measure now heads to the House for consideration.

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

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