June 18, 2013

Attempt to strengthen Maine mining laws likely fails

The Senate's rejection of further safeguards to existing legislation likely dooms the effort.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – A bill designed to tighten mining laws that took effect last year appears headed for defeat, with the House and Senate unable to reach consensus on the language.

click image to enlarge

Bald Mountain, with Greenlaw Pond in the foreground, is owned by Irving, which is considering mining the property for gold, silver and copper deposits. A bill designed to tighten mining laws that took effect last year appears headed for defeat, with the House and Senate unable to reach consensus on the language. Some lawmakers said heavy lobbying by Jim Mitchell and others on behalf of JD Irving Ltd. played a role in the divide.

Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Council of Maine

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Earlier this month, the House voted 91-49 to pass an amended version of a bill, L.D. 1302, that would add environmental and financial safeguards to the law passed last year allowing open-pit mineral mining in Maine.

The Senate rejected that version the next day. The House responded one day later by insisting on passage of the bill.

The bill has now been on the Senate calendar since June 7.

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected the bill 19-16, with several Democrats siding with Republicans to defeat it. The Senate then voted to attach a separate amendment, proposed by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and sent the bill back to the House, which is not likely to pass that version.

Lawmakers acknowledged Tuesday that the bill is likely dead. Several said heavy lobbying by Jim Mitchell and others on behalf of JD Irving Ltd. played a role in the divide.

Irving is the biggest landowner in Maine and has indicated that it wants to mine on land it owns at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Some are convinced that mining operations could boost economically distressed rural areas of Maine, but others are worried about the environmental impact.

"I think Irving got what it paid for here," said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "Their lobbyists were up here 24/7 over the last several weeks."

Many lawmakers, including Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, said it doesn't make sense to change a law that hasn't even had time to be implemented.

The permitting process requires new rules to be written by the Department of Environmental Protection, and those rules have not yet been finalized.

The mining industry testified earlier this year that any added provisions would hamper operations.

Mining of hard rock minerals such as zinc, copper, gold and silver involves blasting rock and processing it with chemicals to separate the minerals.

During mining, natural sulfides are exposed to air and water, creating sulfuric acid that often leaks into surface and ground water. The drainage can cause toxins to leach long-term into watersheds.

The biggest element of the original bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, sought to require independent analysis of cleanup costs and completion of all water treatment within 10 years after a mine's closure. No such provisions are in the current law.

Didisheim said that means there is nothing to ensure that mine operators clean up their sites once they finish.

He said there are sites contaminated from mining done decades ago, including the former Callahan Mine in Brooksville, which is now classified by the federal EPA as a Superfund site.

 

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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