A potential conflict between badly needed jobs and protecting the environment takes shape as Maine revises its mining rules.
If it weren’t so hilly where he lives, Troy Jackson could look out the windows of his home in Allagash and see what has become the symbol of the fight over updating Maine’s mining rules.
Bald Mountain lies about 15 miles away, separated from Jackson’s Aroostook County home by a dense evergreen and hardwood forest that supports populations of moose, deer, bear and other wildlife.
The secluded area, penetrated only by a few logging roads, is part of the landscape in which Jackson, his wife and two sons have made a life for themselves.
“I don’t lock my car,” said Jackson, a Democratic state senator. “I don’t lock my house. I don’t worry about anything here. It’s home.”
Bald Mountain is where the state’s largest landowner, J.D. Irving Ltd. of New Brunswick, wants to mine for gold, silver and other deposits, under mining rules the Department of Environmental Protection is updating with help from a private contractor. North Jackson Co., of Marquette, Mich., has indicated it will submit revised versions of the state’s 20-year-old mining rules to the DEP early this year.
The DEP’s proposal will then go through a public comment process.
Irving hasn’t filed a mining application yet, but if the company does move forward on Bald Mountain, the proposal is likely to generate tension between the goals of protecting the relatively untouched environment and providing badly needed jobs in northern Maine.
Those tensions are felt keenly by Aroostook County lawmakers like Jackson and Bernard Ayotte, a Republican from Caswell. They were among the six legislators who sponsored the bill to overhaul Maine’s mining regulations.
“Do we want to starve to death along clean rivers?” asked Ayotte, who still — a year after the bill’s introduction — carries in his briefcase a copy of L.D. 1853 — An Act to Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Mining in Maine.
“What decisions do you make?” he asked. “We are up here struggling for jobs; we’re hemorrhaging 10,000 people per decade” in residents who leave Aroostook County.
Ayotte points out that the number of acres planted for potato farming, long an economic staple in The County, has declined by half in the last quarter century.
“This is an area that is depressed,” he said. “All the young people are leaving.”
Opening the possibility of mining in northern Maine through legislation and new rules represented “the lesser of two evils,” Ayotte said. He said natural beauty alone could not save Aroostook County, so he opted for a new law, one with environmental safeguards that would require mining companies to repair any damage they caused.
“I did (it) for the jobs,” Ayotte said. “I did it for the economy.”
Jackson, the lawmaker from Allagash, agreed that a desperate need for jobs has kept the mining option open.
“We’ve been struggling up here for a long time, and we haven’t ruined it yet,” he said. “This is where I’m from. I’m definitely not interested in destroying it.” Jackson acknowledged that mining has a history of destructive impacts on the environment.
“But it’s an option we have to consider,” he said. “This is Aroostook. We need jobs up here. If (mining) can be done in a way that’s environmentally stable, we have to look at it.
“But if it can’t be done without harming the water quality, I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said. “I do not want the water quality of that area harmed.”
Whether mining can be done without harm is a question posed by environmentalists.
Jym St. Pierre, director of Restore: The North Woods, a group that works to preserve large areas of forest in Maine, notes that mining produces an array of toxic byproducts, such as mercury, arsenic, cyanide and sulfuric acid, which can pollute surface and groundwater.
“This is a very high-risk way to get jobs,” St. Pierre said.
Mining operations here, in a wet region that gets 45 inches of precipitation a year and is dotted with small lakes and ponds, would represent “a completely different environment than what has been done in the western U.S.,” he said.
St. Pierre contends that the unbroken tracts of forest in northern Maine represent a national treasure, the last relatively untouched place in the East, with a value beyond economic measure.
He is apprehensive about disruption and degradation of the ecosystems, potential damage to water and especially about what will be done with the tailings, the materials left over after the desired metals are extracted.
The perceived lack of information about how these issues are to be resolved has raised alarm among some residents and an array of environmental organizations — from in-state and beyond — including the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The council recently redoubled its opposition to open-pit mining in Maine by blasting the DEP’s choice of the North Jackson Co. to serve as a consultant to help draft the new mining rules.
Pete Didisheim, director of advocacy for the council, a nonprofit environmental organization in Augusta, said the choice of the company represented the “outsourcing” of work that should be done by the technical and professional staff of DEP. He also alleged that the company had misrepresented its credentials and experience by stating in its bid for the $178,000 job that it had been involved in a similar rule revision in Michigan.
The DEP has stood behind its decision to hire North Jackson and has denied the claim that the company was not involved in the rewriting of Michigan’s mining rules, experience that the department cited as important in its choice to accept the North Jackson bid.
The company’s chief financial officer Daniel Wiitala, however, acknowledged that North Jackson had no direct role or responsibility in the Michigan project, but contracted with a mining company representative who was involved in the process. Officials at North Jackson felt that his experience would be expertise enough for the Maine work, Wiitala said.
Jackson, the Allagash senator and one of the sponsors of the mining bill, said he doesn’t want to second-guess the DEP’s decision to hire the Michigan contractor, the sole bidder on the project.
“I’m not involved in what the department does,” he said. Jackson added that he anticipated conflict over the new mining rules. Environmentalists could be expected to face off with the mining companies and anyone they believed to be pressing mining interests in Maine, he said.
But Jackson said he thinks the DEP should be left alone to get its work done. “You’d like to have numerous (bidders)” on state projects, he said, “but the process has got to play out.”
Didisheim has charged that the Michigan contractor is too closely aligned with mining companies to produce a balanced set of rules, and he questions whether the company will represent the interests and concerns of all the constituencies involved — including local communities, conservationists, environmental advocates and mining companies.
He has called for a transparent process that allows enough time and sufficient opportunities around the state for public feedback on the draft rules, before they go to the Legislature.
“That’s what I want,” Jackson said. There must be public hearings that allow people to express their fears and hopes, and the process must be transparent, he said, because this is not just a fight with special interests but a struggle over Maine’s economic sustainability and the shaping of its future.