A Canadian company is seeking to rezone nearly 200 acres in northern Maine to open the state’s first new commercial, metallic mine in decades.

Wolfden Mt. Chase LLC says that Pickett Mountain – located just north of Patten – has the country’s largest undeveloped reserves of a type of ore containing high-grade zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold. The company has filed an application with the Land Use Planning Commission to rezone 197.5 acres to build an underground mine as well as associated buildings and infrastructure at the site near the border of Penobscot and Aroostook counties.

The application will be the first test of new mining regulations enacted by the Legislature in 2017 following years of heated debate largely focused on another large mineral deposit near Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. There are no active proposals to mine the Bald Mountain site. Wolfden Resources, the parent company of Wolfden Mt. Chase LLC, purchased the nearly 6,900 acres around Pickett Mountain several months after the law passed and began conducting test drilling to gauge the quality of the underlying mineral deposits.

Ron Little, CEO of Wolfden Resources, said rezoning is the first step before the company decides whether to move forward with the more extensive and costly work needed to apply for actual mining permits.

Little estimated it would be at least four or five years before mining work could begin at the site. If approved for rezoning, the company would then have to receive permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under the as-yet-unused mining laws.

“We are the first company to test the new code and we feel like we are the company to educate the public about mining,” Little said in an interview Monday. “Not a lot of mining has been done (in Maine) … and the technology has changed over the past 30 to 40 years.”

Nonetheless, the proposal is highly likely to encounter opposition from environmental and outdoor recreation groups, who believe large-scale mining poses pollution risks to Maine’s lakes, streams, rivers and groundwater reserves.

Geologists have long known about a sizable sulfide deposit – originally dubbed the “Mount Chase deposit” – containing zinc, lead, copper and silver. But there have never been any commercial mining attempts at the site due, in part, to pre-2017 regulations that made metal mining all but impossible in Maine.

In the rezoning application, the company said the plan is to use underground drilling and blasting on the rock to “fragment it to a manageable size” before bringing the materials up to the surface. The mined materials will then be “crushed, milled and fed into an onsite concentrator” capable of pulverizing up to 1,000 tons a day.

Valuable minerals will then be removed from the resulting “fine dust” and sent to an out-of-state smelter for refinement. The non-valuable material known as “tailings” will either be re-deposited underground as backfill or turned into a “toothpaste like” substance to be processed at a “tailings management facility.”

Management of those tailings was a key sticking point in the 2017 mining regulations that sharply divided Maine’s environmental community following years of protracted debate and regulatory gridlock.

Supporters of the 2017 law contend it provides strong protections against pollution by, among other things, prohibiting larger open-pit mines and the underwater storage of mine waste. Critics said the law did not go far enough, however, to protect groundwater and nearby surface waters from the acidic runoff that can result from metallic mining in sulfide deposits.

Little said the operation envisioned for Pickett Mountain would have a goal of “zero discharge” and would ensure surrounding waters are not affected.

“It’s a lot different today than what people may have seen at the Callahan Mine along the coast,” Little said, referring to a Hancock County mine that is now a federal Superfund environmental clean-up site. “The technology is very different.”

After accepting the rezoning application for processing and a staff review, the Land Use Planning Commission will hold multiple public hearings on the request. Those meetings have not yet been scheduled.

Correction: This story was updated at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, to correct an error about the 2017 law that overhauled Maine’s mining regulations. The heated debate over mining focused largely on Bald Mountain located in Aroostook County.

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