AUGUSTA — Maine legislators are taking on a contentious fight over the future of mining in the state, a long-running battle stoked by the discovery of a lithium deposit in western Maine estimated to be worth over $1 billion.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing Thursday on seven bills related to Maine’s strict mining restrictions that were mostly prompted by a proposal to extract rocks containing lithium from a massive deposit in Newry. The bills range from easing the state’s mining restrictions to putting temporary holds on mining while the state weighs the potential impacts and creates permanent guardrails.

Lithium-bearing crystals found at Plumbago North in Newry. The crystals are among the largest of their kind ever found. Photo courtesy of William Simmons, file

Advocates on both sides claim to have the environmental high ground.

Lithium is needed to create batteries for electric vehicles, solar-powered backup storage and other renewable energy technologies considered crucial to reducing the global carbon emissions that drive climate change. But extracting the metal from the earth would require open-pit mining that scars landscapes and can significantly harm the local environment.

“Now that lithium and so-called rare earth metals are in high demand for renewable energy technology and other uses, and deposits of those metals are being found in Maine, we are faced with a question of balancing the fight against global climate change with protection of groundwater and natural resources in our backyards,” said Melanie Loyzim, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Maine’s metallic mining law, one of the strictest in the nation, bans metal mining that requires more than a 3-acre opening in the earth and requires that the mining operation excavate no more than 10,000 tons of material and meet a number of standards to protect natural resources and restore the site. It is lauded by some as the most environmentally friendly in the nation and criticized by others as overly restrictive and detrimental to potential economic growth.


The proposed mine at the Newry site, also referred to as Plumbago Mountain, is believed to contain as much as 11 million tons of ore worth an estimated $1.5 billion at current market value. Smaller deposits of the metal have long been known to exist in the state, but the recently discovered deposit in the mountains of western Maine is the first major deposit found in the state and one of the most significant in the world. The deposit is estimated to have a higher percentage of lithium content by weight than any other known deposit.


Advocates for loosening restrictions on mining in Maine say the state’s lithium deposits offer an unprecedented opportunity for the state to become an important player in global battery production, creating economic prosperity and benefitting the environment by mining for materials needed for battery creation. Potential local detrimental environmental impacts, mining advocates say, would be limited by the composition of the rock that contains the valuable metals here and could be thoughtfully curbed with legislation that allows the state to take advantage of these newly discovered natural resources, they argue.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, introduces L.D. 1476 on Thursday during a committee hearing in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Those who say Maine’s mining law should stay as it is argue that because the value of lithium could change, the economic benefit is not guaranteed. Cutting open acres of the earth to extract minerals would undoubtedly negatively impact the immediate environment and is likely to have downstream impacts on water and air quality, biodiversity and subsequently people, as well as on other important Maine industries that rely upon a healthy environment to succeed, including forest products, blueberries and tourism.

The state, however, says there’s a middle ground where Maine can move forward with mining metals necessary for renewable energy while protecting its natural environment.

Loyzim told the committee that the answer is to allow limited open-pit mining, which is now practically prohibited in the state. Mining the mineral that contains the lithium deposit in Newry has a lower environmental risk than mining the minerals that were being considered when the state passed one of the strictest mining laws in the nation, Loyzim said. The Newry mineral, spudomene, is not soluble in water or acids and therefore is less likely to be damaging to the state’s water resources than minerals that dissolve in water.


Loyzim said even with this change, Maine’s mining laws would remain stringent and any potential damage could be carefully managed by the state.


But others urged the state and lawmakers to slow down and take more time to consider what lithium mining would mean for Maine.

“As we facilitate our transition away from fossil fuels, we must examine the risks of lithium mining and consider whether the benefits of mining here in Maine justify the harms,” Rep. Margaret O’Neil, D-Saco, said in presenting her bill, L.D. 1508, to place a five-year moratorium on lithium mining while the state studies the issue. “It’s important that we do not rush into a decision.”

State Rep. Margaret O’Neil, D-Saco, introduces L.D. 1508, on Thursday during a committee hearing in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

O’Neil said that just because lithium is often used for renewable energy technology that doesn’t mean it should be enthusiastically mined. In considering if, how, when and where to mine lithium in Maine, the state also should be considering how to design policy to decrease the need for mining in the future by reducing energy use.

“Our gold rush mentality regarding oil has fueled the climate crisis,” O’Neil said. “We have an opportunity to learn from those mistakes and take a thoughtful approach as we mobilize to reduce carbon emissions. With thoughtful planning, we can keep Mainers safe and protect our ecosystems as we meet our energy needs.”


Although varied views were shared at Thursday’s public hearing on what the future of mining in Maine should look like, all seemed to agree that if mining restrictions are to be loosened in Maine, it should be done carefully.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, represents Oxford County, which includes Newry. She presented a bill, L.D. 1476, that would change the definition of metallic mineral in a way that would allow for mining at Newry to move forward. She said the state should not unnecessarily regulate activities and that rock-forming minerals like spudomene can be safely excavated. However, she also noted that Maine should continue to be a leader in environmental protection and that if she were presented evidence that mining the rock would harm the water in her area, she would no longer be in support of loosening mining restrictions to allow mining at Newry.

“Water protection is paramount,” Keim said.

Global production of lithium has skyrocketed in recent years. In 1995, the world produced 95,000 tons. In 2021, that number jumped to 106,000 tons, according to the World Economic Forum. Australia produces more than 50 percent of the world’s lithium, follow by Chile and then China. The United States produces less than 2 percent of the world’s annual supply of lithium.

The federal government has pushed to increase domestic supply of minerals needed to create batteries, including lithium. But as in Maine, significant pushback has come from those concerned about environmental impacts.

The proposed mine at the Newry site is one of several projects that have fueled a decade-long debate over the state’s rules.

Those rules effectively blocked a proposed zinc, copper and gold mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County in 2015.

A silver mine proposed by Wolfden Resources Corp. east of Baxter State Park has been on hold because of rezoning challenges and local opposition.

And in November geologists discovered what appears to be a large concentration of valuable rare earth metals and trace metals on a remote mountainside in northern Maine. That site is still being studied to determine the size of the deposit and whether it might be a site for a potential mining operation.

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