As an environmental and natural resource economist, my job is to look at the potential costs and benefits of any proposed legislation. Benefits of mining include the potential jobs and increased tax revenue that could come about from any development. On the cost side, of course, are the possible negative effects on the environment.

Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for Irving (a mining company with interests in Bald Mountain), suggests that allowing this type of mining in Maine could result in 300 direct jobs and 400 indirect jobs, and he projects $126 million in state and local taxes.

Given that the proposed mining area is in Aroostook County, an area of the state that experiences chronic persistent poverty and has higher unemployment rates than the rest of the state, that is no small benefit.

But who will get these jobs? One of the pitfalls of this “potential jobs” argument is just that – the jobs are potential.

There needs to be a match between the skills of the population and those necessary for the jobs.

Phillipe Dolzone, a writer for the Balance, an online financial advice site, writes, “The increasing complexity of the mining process and involved technology nowadays requires a much higher level of skills, including computer literacy … most of the mining groups will more likely hire recently graduated students from high school programs in mining or technical school programs in mine technology.” Currently, Maine has none of these.

Mining companies may find it less costly to import talent from elsewhere rather than foster it locally. That may be a boon to the area, if families come to Aroostook County for the mining jobs and decide to stay. But that possibility depends on how long the mining activity is expected to last at a particular site.

That, in turn, depends on the amount of reserves at the site and the rate of extraction, which in turn is determined by the price of the minerals and the cost of the technology needed to remove them.

So what can a community do to ensure that those promised jobs do, in fact, materialize?

One possibility is a community benefit agreement, much like those required under Maine’s Wind Energy Act, whereby grid-scale wind development projects must demonstrate that they will provide “tangible benefits” to the future.

Typically, community benefit agreements are negotiated between the project developer and a community coalition, and can include local hiring provisions, or establish funds for job training and job readiness programs.

Now to look at the potential costs. Open pit mining, which is the most common method and most likely to be used in Maine, has the potential to expose radioactive elements, and contaminate groundwater and surface water.

As minerals may be present in small quantities in a geographic area, large quantities of ore need to be refined to extract it. Contaminants may be released into the water through separation of the minerals from the surrounding rock, where slurry containing mine tailings, water and pulverized rock is created.

Other potential environmental costs are disruption to ecosystems and endangered species habitat, large-scale water extraction and erosion. Beyond the possible risks to the environment and human health, others have expressed concern that mining activity could affect Maine’s tourism industry.

To minimize these costs (and to maximize net benefit), the tailings or residue from mining activity must be contained and disposed of in a way that doesn’t adversely affect sediments, groundwater or surface water. Much of the waste that is generated is likely to be toxic or radioactive, and so proper disposal is essential.

Likewise, in order to minimize the harm done, proper siting techniques need to be used.

The mine’s footprint, including any access roads, must be sited in such a way that they don’t affect sensitive areas or endangered species habitat, or have the potential to increase flooding, deforestation or erosion.

The latest regulations adopted by the Board of Environmental Protection attempt to resolve some of the shortcomings that had been pointed out last time these regulations were discussed.

However, questions remain. One thing’s for sure, though: With no fewer than 14 bills introduced in the 128th Legislature, the discussion is far from over.

There are potential benefits and costs to mining in Maine. The job of good policy is to ensure that institutions are in place to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs – and ensure an equitable distribution of costs and benefits.

Only then should each proposal be evaluated on its own merits.

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