AUGUSTA – State Rep. John Martin is sponsoring a bill that would make it easier for the Canadian-based Irving family to mine for valuable minerals on a Maine mountain at the same time he is negotiating a $250,000 bankruptcy debt with an Irving-family oil business.

Martin, a Democrat, is co-owner of the Bald Eagle convenience store in his hometown of Eagle Lake, which Irving Oil Marketing Inc. says in court filings is $250,000 in debt for gas and diesel deliveries and related charges.

Martin acknowledges $150,000 of that debt, but said there is “absolutely” no conflict between owing one Irving company money and his legislation to rewrite the state’s mining laws, which would benefit another Irving company.

The bill was prompted by the J.D. Irving Co., co-owner of Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Geological surveys have shown the mountain, in an area that Martin represents in the Legislature, contains significant deposits of gold, silver, copper and other minerals.

Martin said he met with J.D. Irving officials earlier this year and was persuaded to sponsor a revision of the state’s mining laws — to make it easier to get mining permits — because it could lead to good-paying jobs for hard-hit northern Maine.

Martin, 70, has served 46 years in the state House and Senate. He was speaker of the House from 1975 to 1994, but his tenure was cut short when a top aide pleaded guilty to burglary and ballot-tampering charges, and Martin resigned the leadership position.

Martin said there is “absolutely” no connection between the debt to Irving Oil that he is trying to get lowered and his mining legislation.

He also said of the two Irving-named companies, “There is positively no connection.”

Mary Keith, a spokesman for J.D. Irving, explained that Bald Mountain is co-owned by “Irving Woodlands LLC and Aroostook Timberlands LLC,” which “are separately owned and controlled by J.D. Irving Ltd. and none of these companies has any legal relationship or affiliation to Irving Oil. The forestry operations of Irving Woodlands, Aroostook Timberlands and J.D. Irving Ltd. are separate in all respects from any operations or activities of Irving Oil.”

The relationships among the multiple Irving-named companies operating in North America are the subject of much discussion in the Canadian business press. Because the companies are all privately held, there are few public documents describing the interconnections within what Canadians call “the Irving empire.”

Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper refers to the Irving family’s “sprawling private business” interests, which combined helped earn the family the No. 3 spot in the 2011 “The Rich 100” list compiled by Canadian Business Magazine. That list estimates the family’s worth at $7.8 billion.

According to the magazine, while separately run by various family members or their deputies, companies such as J.D. Irving — which owns Aroostook Timberlands — and Irving Oil all contribute to the family’s considerable assets.

Among those assets are 1.2 million acres of Maine forestlands, according to Forbes magazine, making them the largest landowner in the state.

Part of those holdings is Bald Mountain, near Ashland and Portage and in Martin’s House district. His mining bill, L.D. 1853, is currently being discussed almost daily in the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee.

It has been opposed by environmental groups, who say the late-session fast-tracking means there will not be adequate time for the public to have its say or for the scientific studies required by such a major change to the state’s environmental laws.

Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental organization, said the situation “does raise concerns.”  

“Has this influenced his decision to introduce the bill? We hope that’s not the case,” Drouin said. “Regardless, this bill has the potential to destroy the quality of our water, land and wildlife for the benefit of Irving Oil, a company that is proposing to build a huge, open-pit copper mine in Maine’s North Woods.”

Martin said the Bald Eagle store dispute with Irving Oil Marketing. “goes back six years.” It involves a change in how Irving billed the store that led to the original debt. Martin co-owns the store with Gary Voisine of Fort Kent.

He said the store paid off part of that debt by renovating the store at Irving’s request. After that, he said the store still owed $150,000 for gas and diesel deliveries. Martin said he could not get a bank loan for that amount because the bank wanted the records involving an earlier gas spill at the store, and Irving never supplied them.

Irving eventually went to state court, and was granted a lien on the store last fall. The day before the lien was to take effect, Martin and Voisine’s store filed in federal court for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows the company to renegotiate its debts.

“We’ve made them (Irving) an offer,” Martin said, but he had not heard back yet from Irving’s local attorneys.

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