Environmental groups are divided over proposed new rules that could open the door to lithium mining in Newry.

The Board of Environmental Protection adopted provisional rules last month that would allow applicants to get around the state ban on open-pit mining if they can prove to the state’s satisfaction that the mineral extraction they want to do won’t threaten human or environmental health.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine told a legislative committee Monday that the preliminary testing requirements and long-term water quality monitoring built into the proposed exemption offer adequate safeguards against contamination.

“The department took a look at the existing regulatory framework that we had and said we probably need something in between what we know covers really low-risk stuff and the thing that we know covers really high-risk stuff,” said NRCM staff scientist Nick Bennett.

“I think this is particularly appropriate for the site in Newry and it’s appropriate for potential future deposits of other rare earth minerals which may be needed for things like magnets or wind turbines or jet engines or radar,” Bennett continued.

When lawmakers pressed Bennett, who helped develop the state’s existing mining laws, thought to be some of the strictest in the nation, on whether he’d like to make any improvements to the provisional rules, Bennett stood firm.


“They’re pretty good,” he said of the permit testing requirements. “It’s pretty much what we asked for.”

The provisional amendment – the result of a state law adopted last July intended to overhaul the mining law to allow for the extraction of non-reactive minerals like spodumene, the hard rock source of lithium – requires legislative approval before it becomes final.

If adopted, these rules would allow Mary and Gary Freeman, retired rock hounds who split their time between Maine and Florida, to begin the rigorous testing needed to build an open-pit mine over a large lithium-rich mineral deposit they discovered while hunting for gemstones in Newry in 2018.

But a previous NRCM lobbyist told members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee that the provisional rules don’t go nearly far enough, and led a chorus of environmental critics seeking additional protections before an exemption to the state’s ban on open-pit mining would be considered.

“Though these rules have improved somewhat since the first draft, there are still some alarming provisions that need your attention,” said Evelyn deFrees of Searsmont, an environmental consultant and former lobbyist for NRCM and Maine Audubon. “I implore this committee to take the time necessary to dig into the rules and make the rules more protective of Maine’s mountains and people.”

The Appalachian Mountain Club asked lawmakers to double the number of preliminary geologic tests required to prove the underlying material to be dug up would not produce acid when exposed to water or air, as a copper or silver mine would, or include any radioactive material. Instead of two samples per acre, it wanted at least four tests per acre. An acre is about the size of a football field without end zones.


The club also asked lawmakers to limit the overall size of the pit to no more than 10 acres. The proposed rule would allow the pit to be no more than 10 acres at any one time. An applicant would have to restore an acre of the used pit before opening up an 11th acre.

Frank Perham stands next to one of the lithium-bearing crystals found at Plumbago North. The crystals are among the largest of their kind ever found. Photo courtesy of William Simmons. William Simmons photo

But Eliza Townsend, the club’s conservation policy director, argued that an open pit mine is never going to be anything more than a glorified “hole in the ground.” Allowing a pit to grow in size would tarnish the unspoiled natural beauty that draws hikers to Maine, especially when the pit is dug into a mountaintop.

Environmental critics asked lawmakers to require an open-pit mining applicant to use so-called dark sky lighting to minimize the impact on wildlife, neighbors and hikers camping near the Newry lithium site, including those that use the Grafton Notch loop trail.

Some Republicans wanted the committee to approve the rules Monday, arguing the state Legislature had already voted for a mineral mining exemption last year when it voted to amend the mining law and order the drafting of new rules.

Democrats, however, appeared stung by criticism from environmental advocates who said the committee was considering rules that would open the door to open-pit mining at the same time the legislative calendar had said it would be working on another bill to strengthen the state’s mining law.

Committee co-chair Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, admitted the legislative process was unusual in this case, but she said committee work speeds up at the end of a legislative session and that members are sometimes forced to gut one bill and replace it with the contents of another to meet a calendar deadline.


In response to the criticism, however, Democrats led a 6-3 vote to table further debate until Wednesday.

The Newry deposit is a potential piece in the global ramp-up of lithium production to make batteries for storing clean wind and solar energy and powering electric cars. Alternative lithium-free batteries are being tested, but for now, lithium is still used in most electric vehicles and grid batteries.

Despite government and industry interest in building up a domestic lithium market, Nevada currently has the country’s only operational lithium mine. The Silver Peak mine, which began operating in the 1960s, pumps lithium-rich brine from underground into large evaporation ponds.

But the United States has at least a hundred domestic lithium mines that are hoping to get the permits needed to compete with the likes of Australia, Chile, China and Argentina, which currently dominate the world market, according to conservation biologist Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Unlike most U.S. deposits, however, the Newry find is a hard rock deposit of lithium, similar to those in Australia. They form when hot magma intrudes into the crust and then cools into metal-rich crystals. Hard-rock lithium is costlier to mine, quicker to market and yields a more valuable form of lithium than brining.

In a 2020 paper detailing the discovery, the Freemans claimed the 10 million metric-ton Plumbago Mountain deposit had the highest average lithium content of any known spodumene deposit, including gigantic 36-foot-long crystals embedded deep inside the coarse brown and white rock face.

Initially, the Freemans said they wanted to sell to the battery market, something that would likely require chemical processing on-site or nearby. Later, they said they wanted to sell raw spodumene ore with the highest levels of lithium to scientific glass manufacturers, which could eliminate the need for processing.

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