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But the state DEP, which is devising new mining rules for Maine, calls the 20-year-old pollution warnings outdated.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

(Continued from page 1)

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


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.

“Our report shows that DEP is fully aware that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain could have huge environmental impacts, with relatively small and short-lived economic returns, yet DEP has failed to share this information with lawmakers and the public,” he said.

Bennett said earlier estimates by the other mining companies set the likely number of jobs at 75 to 130.

risks from heavy metals

When exposed to air and water, sulfur forms sulfuric acid, a toxic component in car batteries, fertilizers, wastewater treatment and oil refining – and one of the most widely used industrial manufacturing chemicals.

In the mining process, the acid leaches out metals – including arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, copper and zinc – that are naturally in the rock and causes them to seep into groundwater, rivers and lakes, Bennett said. Many of the heavy metals are extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms, he said.

Bowker, an independent environmental risk manager who has studied Maine’s mining statute, rules, history and operations, said, “There cannot be any acid drainage.

“It doesn’t say that in our statute. This (proposed) rule is an insult to the public interest,” he said. “Treating this as even close to a final mining rule is like calling a can of Campbell’s alphabet soup the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the council’s report underscores the need to ensure that mining is done only under the highest standards. He said the draft rules are inadequate.

“This troubling report tells us that the LePage administration may be putting our economy at risk for far fewer jobs than the project claims it will generate,” McCabe said.

Although the report focuses on Bald Mountain, there is potential for such issues to arise elsewhere in Maine, McCabe said. There are significant mineral deposits in other parts of Aroostook County, and in Franklin, Hancock, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties.

a push for tighter controls

Opponents of the DEP’s proposed revisions – including environmental advocates, mining experts and engineering specialists – have questioned whether the new rules would protect the public and the environment, and expressed concern that they will favor Irving’s plans instead.

The environmental risks should prompt more vigorous monitoring and regulation, not less, said Bennett, with the Natural Resources Council. “But DEP never let its technical folks testify on this issue. Essentially, they never spoke out to the Legislature,” he said.

The debate over the rules centers on how much protection will be needed to preserve water quality in the area around Bald Mountain, which is prime recreational wilderness and habitat for brook trout, Bennett said.

The Natural Resources Council contends that stricter controls and greater monitoring are needed, and a collaboration of the Maine Conservation Alliance, Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club has also expressed concerns over the proposed regulations.

The group, operating through its website, Maine Mining Watch, has collected 450 signatures since Monday, asking the state to make sure that the rules are strengthened to preserve the environment and protect taxpayers from costs associated with cleanup of closed mines, said Maureen Drouin, spokeswoman for the group and executive director of Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine Conservation Alliance.

The full report and background materials are online at www.nrcm.org.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:ncairn@pressherald.com
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