Lawmakers want more environmental safeguards before opening the door to lithium mining in Newry.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted last week to add a half-dozen extra conditions that a would-be mineral excavator must meet to get an exemption from the state’s open pit mining ban.

Spodumene at Plumbago North. Spodumene is a mineral that contains lithium oxide, from which lithium can be extracted. Photo courtesy of William Simmons.

The new conditions would double the number of test borings required to prove the area is safe for open-air mining, cut the maximum size of the pit itself in half, from 10 to 5 acres, require the applicant to test for high levels of forever chemicals, and require the use of low-energy, dark sky-friendly lighting.

“This is an exception to Maine’s mining law that is strong,” said Rep. Maggie O’Neil, D-Saco, who voted in favor of the rules. “We want to protect against bad impacts happening here in Maine. If we choose to make an exception to that mining law, we should be making that with adequate testing.”

The initial rules would have required a minimum of two test borings for every acre to be mined, with the caveat that the state Department of Environmental Protection could order more if regulators thought site conditions required it. The amended rules will now require four test borings per acre.

The extra borings are intended to prove to the state’s satisfaction that the proposed mineral extraction won’t threaten human or environmental health by exposing radioactive material or acid-producing rock to the open elements.


The reduction in pit size was intended to appease environmental advocates, hiking groups and neighbors who called open pits “glorified holes in the ground.” Some mountainside mines would be visible to the hikers of some of Maine’s most popular trails.

All nine committee members present Thursday voted in favor of the amended rules. The rules were crafted by state environmental regulators and approved last month by the Board of Environmental Protection in response to a new state law meant to make it easier to excavate non-reactive minerals.

If approved by the Legislature, the proposed exemption would open the door to open-pit mining of non-reactive minerals such as spodumene, a hard-rock mineral that contains lithium, which is used to make batteries for storing clean wind and solar energy and powering electric cars.

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.

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 lithium deposit, like 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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