October 18, 2013

Many testify against revising Maine mining rules

But those who speak in support of easing the standards say the changes would create jobs.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A proposal to rewrite state regulations to streamline the permitting process for open-pit mining met with skepticism and impassioned opposition from scores of people who turned out Thursday for a hearing by the state Board of Environmental Protection.

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Phil Daggett speaks in favor of allowing mining at Bald Mountain and implementing new regulations at a DEP hearing Thursday in Augusta.

Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

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More than 100 people testified on the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal, with opponents outnumbering supporters by a 5-to-1 ratio.

Opponents said the new regulations would not go far enough to guarantee protection of water, air, land, wildlife habitats and communities – particularly in Aroostook County, where J.D. Irving of New Brunswick has shown interest in mining at Bald Mountain.

Supporters of the proposed rule changes said that a mining operation could provide desperately needed jobs for the county’s depressed economy.

The new regulations would apply to all potential mining locations in Maine.

Irving has not submitted a formal mining request, plan or permit application to the DEP, state officials have said, but company representatives have said for months that Irving is investigating the potential of extracting gold, silver, copper and other metals at Bald Mountain.

Estimates of the economic benefits of an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain have been hotly debated, and that debate continued at Thursday’s hearing.

Job projections from the state and from Irving have ranged from less than 20 to 700. Critics said those estimates have never been substantiated and they aren’t convinced that Aroostook County has the work force or skills for the better-paying jobs at a mine.

Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for Irving, stood by estimates of 300 direct jobs and 400 indirect jobs, and a projection of $126 million in state and local taxes, as economic benefits to Maine.

He said Thursday night that Irving has a 65-year history in forestry in Maine and is not looking for “a short-term black eye” with a poorly developed or implemented mining plan.

Hourihan said the company is seeking scientifically based regulation that would outline expected outcomes, such as no water pollution and no discharge, before evaluating the mining potential at Bald Mountain.

“We would like to have a look at it ... to see if there’s a feasible mine, but we don’t know,” Hourihan said.

Before any decision could be considered, he said, laws reflecting changes in mining in the past few decades would have to be put in effect.

“The old law was very prescriptive and limited ... drastically outdated,” he said. “We think the right idea is to get modern laws and rules in place.”

The proposed rule was developed after the Legislature passed a law in 2012 directing the DEP to update and streamline mining standards in Maine, which had not been modified in 20 years. Two companies investigated at that time and then abandoned plans to mine Bald Mountain.

The DEP, with the help of mining industry consultant North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich., produced the draft rule after more than nine months of work. It now must be reviewed by the Board of Environmental Protection, which will hold a public meeting to discuss Thursday’s testimony, as well as written comments due Oct. 28 and any questions its members may have.

The draft rule could be sent back to the DEP for further work before Jan. 10, when it is due to be sent to the Legislature.

opponents have many questions

At the hearing, Shelly Mountain of Mapleton expressed the feelings of many Aroostook County residents, saying she and others are not absolutely opposed to mining but question the accuracy of job estimates, remediation commitments and financial responsibility for mining companies to support cleanup for as long as it could be needed.

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