October 11, 2013

Environmental group: Studies detail risks of mining Bald Mountain

But the state DEP, which is devising new mining rules for Maine, calls the 20-year-old pollution warnings outdated.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has mining industry documents that conclude that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County would likely pollute rivers, lakes and streams, according to a report issued Thursday by an environmental group.

click image to enlarge

Bald Mountain, seen here with Greenlaw Pond in the foreground, is owned by J.D. Irving Ltd., which is considering mining the property for gold, silver and copper deposits. A hearing on the proposal is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 17 at the Augusta Civic Center.

Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Council of Maine

click image to enlarge

FINDINGS OF THE REPORT

Here are the major findings of the report by the Natural Resources Council of Maine:

Bald Mountain is an unusually dangerous site for a mining operation because of:

– The high likelihood of acid mine drainage pollution.

– Difficulty meeting water quality standards.

Extremely high arsenic concentrations.

The DEP failed to share information with lawmakers about risks at Bald Mountain, leaving the state unprepared for environmental threats in mining there.

DEP technical staff have had little opportunity to speak publicly about why companies abandoned open-pit mining at Bald Mountain in the 1990s.

J.D. Irving’s job-creation estimates for the mining are unproven and likely inflated, and the DEP should have shared that with state legislators.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine released the report, “Bald Mountain Mining Risks: Hidden From the Public,” showing that the DEP has 20-year-old studies from two mining companies analyzing the potential of open-pit mining at Bald Mountain and finding that sulfuric acid and arsenic would pollute the Fish River watershed.

The report – the council’s second within a month that criticizes the DEP’s handling of environmental issues and public information – comes a week before a public hearing by the Board of Environmental Protection on proposed rules developed over the past 18 months by the DEP and its mining industry consultant, North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich. Rule changes are required under 2012 mining legislation endorsed by J.D. Irving Ltd. of New Brunswick, which has publicly expressed interest in mining at Bald Mountain.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. next Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center.

Irving has described the Bald Mountain project as a 500-acre site with a 100-acre open pit, valued by some estimates at billions of dollars and offering the prospect of as many as 700 direct and indirect jobs in economically strapped northern Maine. The site would be mined for gold, silver and copper deposits.

The DEP and state lawmakers have proposed revised regulations to streamline, or ease, the permitting process for open-pit mining in the state. Any change would need approval from the BEP and the Legislature, said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council in Augusta.

The council’s report draws on studies done by consultants for two mining companies that pursued permits in the 1980s and 1990s for open-pit mining at Bald Mountain, said Bennett.

The documents, obtained by the council and Lindsay Newland Bowker, director of Bowker Associates in Stonington, through Freedom of Access Act requests, include repeated warnings that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain would be very risky.

Both mining companies – the Swedish company Boliden Resources and the now-defunct Black Hawk Mining Inc. – abandoned their plans largely because of the potential environmental risks and difficulties with operations at the Bald Mountain ore deposit, Bennett said.

“This is a really dangerous site,” he said. “And once groundwater contamination starts, it’s incredibly difficult to control.”

DEP: COUNCIL REPORT CONTAINS LIES

Heather Parent, policy director for the DEP, said the council’s report includes “flat-out lies and misrepresentations.”

The DEP’s technical staff has been involved in every step of the rulemaking process and its expertise was made available to lawmakers many times, including at legislative work sessions, she said. Staff members, particularly those with specialized training in water quality, were not impeded in giving their input, Parent said.

“They helped us re-craft the law to make it more protective,” she said.

The 20-year-old studies are outdated, she said, and relied on technology that has since changed. She said the DEP never released the studies before because “nobody asked for them.”

The DEP is working on regulations that would apply to the entire state, not just one site, Parent said. “We were not focused on Bald Mountain,” she said.

Irving has not approached the DEP about permitting for mining at Bald Mountain, Parent said. She said she is not aware of the company having any discussion about mining or new regulations with anyone in the DEP.

Bennett said technical experts for the DEP and the two mining companies have repeatedly concluded that an open-pit operation at Bald Mountain would by extremely difficult, risky and costly because of high concentrations of sulfur and arsenic.

(Continued on page 2)

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