January 6, 2013

The battle for Bald Mountain

A potential conflict between badly needed jobs and protecting the environment takes shape as Maine revises its mining rules.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If it weren't so hilly where he lives, Troy Jackson could look out the windows of his home in Allagash and see what has become the symbol of the fight over updating Maine's mining rules.

Today's poll: Bald Mountain mining

Should the state allow a company to mine for gold, silver and other deposits on Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain?

Yes

No

View Results

click image to enlarge

Bald Mountain, with Greenlaw Pond in the foreground, is owned by J.D. Irving of New Brunswick, which is considering mining the property for gold, silver and other deposits under rules the state is in the process of revising.

Natural Resources Council of Maine photo

Bald Mountain lies about 15 miles away, separated from Jackson's Aroostook County home by a dense evergreen and hardwood forest that supports populations of moose, deer, bear and other wildlife.

The secluded area, penetrated only by a few logging roads, is part of the landscape in which Jackson, his wife and two sons have made a life for themselves.

"I don't lock my car," said Jackson, a Democratic state senator. "I don't lock my house. I don't worry about anything here. It's home."

Bald Mountain is where the state's largest landowner, J.D. Irving Ltd. of New Brunswick, wants to mine for gold, silver and other deposits, under mining rules the Department of Environmental Protection is updating with help from a private contractor. North Jackson Co., of Marquette, Mich., has indicated it will submit revised versions of the state's 20-year-old mining rules to the DEP early this year.

The DEP's proposal will then go through a public comment process.

Irving hasn't filed a mining application yet, but if the company does move forward on Bald Mountain, the proposal is likely to generate tension between the goals of protecting the relatively untouched environment and providing badly needed jobs in northern Maine.

Those tensions are felt keenly by Aroostook County lawmakers like Jackson and Bernard Ayotte, a Republican from Caswell. They were among the six legislators who sponsored the bill to overhaul Maine's mining regulations.

"Do we want to starve to death along clean rivers?" asked Ayotte, who still -- a year after the bill's introduction -- carries in his briefcase a copy of L.D. 1853 -- An Act to Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Mining in Maine.

"What decisions do you make?" he asked. "We are up here struggling for jobs; we're hemorrhaging 10,000 people per decade" in residents who leave Aroostook County.

Ayotte points out that the number of acres planted for potato farming, long an economic staple in The County, has declined by half in the last quarter century.

"This is an area that is depressed," he said. "All the young people are leaving."

Opening the possibility of mining in northern Maine through legislation and new rules represented "the lesser of two evils," Ayotte said. He said natural beauty alone could not save Aroostook County, so he opted for a new law, one with environmental safeguards that would require mining companies to repair any damage they caused.

"I did (it) for the jobs," Ayotte said. "I did it for the economy."

Jackson, the lawmaker from Allagash, agreed that a desperate need for jobs has kept the mining option open.

"We've been struggling up here for a long time, and we haven't ruined it yet," he said. "This is where I'm from. I'm definitely not interested in destroying it." Jackson acknowledged that mining has a history of destructive impacts on the environment.

"But it's an option we have to consider," he said. "This is Aroostook. We need jobs up here. If (mining) can be done in a way that's environmentally stable, we have to look at it.

"But if it can't be done without harming the water quality, I don't want anything to do with it," he said. "I do not want the water quality of that area harmed."

Whether mining can be done without harm is a question posed by environmentalists.

Jym St. Pierre, director of Restore: The North Woods, a group that works to preserve large areas of forest in Maine, notes that mining produces an array of toxic byproducts, such as mercury, arsenic, cyanide and sulfuric acid, which can pollute surface and groundwater.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Bald Mountain mining

Should the state allow a company to mine for gold, silver and other deposits on Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain?

Yes

No

View Results