By A.J. Higgins
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine – A proposal to loosen mining regulations in Maine has suffered a setback in Augusta. The Maine House overwhelmingly rejected the measure, which first emerged three years ago, after a Canadian corporation expressed interest in developing mining operations on land it owns at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
The debate over the rule changes has pitted supporters from northern Maine against environmentalists from the south.
The prospect of revising the state’s mining regulations has been before the Legislature for the last three years after Canadian industrial giant J.D. Irving Ltd. announced its plans to mine metals valued at more than $1.7 billion at its Bald Mountain acreage in Aroostook County.
Backed by the company, Rep. John Martin, a Democrat from the Aroostook County town of Eagle Lake, supported the bill that he says would provide financial opportunities for the people of northern Maine.
“Maybe what we want for some people is to continue to take the money from Portland and South Portland and support our schools in Aroostook County, because you see, Aroostook County right now can’t support its own,” Martin said.
Martin says he sees the regulations under the bill as reasonable, and that southern Maine lawmakers who oppose the bill, at the expense of economic development in the county, should be prepared to ante up .
“Take a look at how much money is coming to Aroostook County in the school subsidy program, and some of the districts are receiving close to 90 percent,” Martin said. “Where do you think that money is coming from? You in southern Maine.”
After months of reviewing the proposed revisions with fellow members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Ralph Tucker says he can see why the international mining industry would be anxious to dig into Maine. The Brunswick Democrat was in the minority of the committee that opposed what he characterizes as a loosening of restrictions for mining operations. And Tucker urged his seat mates in the House to also oppose the bill.
“The issue is as follows: whether under proposed regulations, metal mining can be done without significant risks to our watershed and ground waters, and without uncertain future costs to the taxpayers,” Tucker said. “On close examination, the regulations proposed by the department do not meet that test.”
Critics also say the bill would potentially expose the state to high costs in the event of an environmental disaster. Rep. Gay Grant, a Gardiner Democrat, says a major concern is the danger to water quality posed by tailings impoundments, the materials that are left over during the ore separation process.
“The rules before us fail to prevent contamination of our water,” Grant said. “These rules allow tailings impoundments, which can fail catastrophically during the active life of a mine. Eighty percent of tailings dams’ failures occurred during the active life of a mine. The reality is that allowing tailings impoundments during the active life of a mine virtually guarantees the impoundments will be permanent features on Maine’s landscape.”
But other lawmakers said they support the mining rule changes because they would help toward the state goals of expanding the market for natural resources. And Rep. Richard Campbell, an Orrington Republican, says if opponents want to outlaw mining altogether, they should put forth a new bill, rather than use the proposed rule change.
“This is a vote on the rules, this is not a vote on whether or not we are able to mine in Maine,” Campbell said. “If we do not want to mine in Maine – pass the law. Don’t give in to an end run around rulemaking.”
Following the 109-36 vote against the bill, Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said he was glad the House took a strong stand for clean water. The measure now moves to the Senate.