By Mal Leary
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine – A renewed effort to overhaul Maine’s mining regulations is re-igniting a fierce debate in Augusta, where lawmakers are considering the Department of Environmental Protection’s plan.
A crowd of mostly opponents filled two legislative hearing rooms for a public hearing on Wednesday. But first, there was a debate over whether the rules themselves should even be considered.
First, a little history: In 2012, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the first overhaul of mining laws since 1991, instructing the Department of Environmental Protection to develop regulations for large-scale mining. Proposed new rules came out in January of 2014, but by then, the political make-up of the Legislature had changed. Democrats were in control and there were concerns that the rules were too weak and posed too great a threat to the environment.
So they sent the rules back to the DEP for modification. Now, they’re back, and this time, the Legislature is evenly controlled by both parties. Adding to the controversy is the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office that the rules are not properly before the Legislature, under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. That has divided Democrats themselves.
This was the exchange between Kathy Breen, a senator from Falmouth, and John Martin, a representative from Eagle Lake, with Breen quoting from the AG’s memo, ” ‘…is inconsistent with the intent and language of the Maine Administrative Procedures Act,’ ” Breen quoted, from the AG office’s opinion. “So clearly we have a difference of opinion here, Mr. Chairman.”
“First of all, I want to point out that opinion was not drafted by the Attorney General, it is not an opinion of the Attorney General,” Martin responded. “It is the opinion of two attorneys in the Attorney General’s office that basically reversed their position.”
But Attorney General Janet Mills says in an email to MPBN News that it is the opinion of her office. She says the committee can always decide to preempt the Administrative Procedures Act, but only if they can get the votes in the full Legislature to do that.
The panel then started to hear from the public. Alice Bolstridge is a resident of Presque Isle who brought up the underlying issue driving the rules change – the desire of New Brunswick-based JD Irving Ltd. to develop a mine near Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
“With these rules, open pit mining at this site would pollute a chain of rivers, streams and lakes which are among the most pristine in the United States,” Bolstridge said.
Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says while the rules would apply to the whole state, the only project under consideration is the Irving project. And he says the proposed rules are woefully inadequate.
“That site is an extremely dangerous site – very high levels of sulfur, very high levels of arsenic,” Bennett said. “That sulfur, when it is dug up and exposed to air and water, forms sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid leaches the arsenic out of the rocks. So that site is, really, unlikely a safe place to mine, whatever the rules are.”
But the hearing became contentious when Brownie Carson of Harpswell, a well-known environmentalist, questioned what he described as “the secretive nature of the Irving companies.” Committee co-chair, Republican Sen. Tom Saviello. gaveled him down.
“Is Irving going to do to Maine, and I don’t mean…”
(gavel raps) “Excuse Me! Excuse me!”
“Are they going to…”
“I said excuse me..You are done. Sit down!” I don’t want any attacks on individuals or companies it is already started…I am not going to deal with it now. So thank you very much.”
“We know what you are up to, Tom.”
“Thank you very much.” (gavel slams down)
But there was also testimony that mining can be carried out in an environmentally acceptable way. Retired chemical industry executive Don Abbott, from Camden, argued that rules can be adequately crafted to allow mining in Maine.
“I urge you to consider that responsible restoration of mining, of mining sites at closure, must be a condition for the privilege of mining our natural materials,” Abbott said.
And geologist Larry Fitzgerald, from Winthrop, reminded lawmakers that metal is crucial to a modern economy, and that rules should be crafted to allow mining and minimize environmental impact.
“The U.S., as well as the people of Maine, require metallic minerals for every day life, because they are vital to our ability to live and work,” Fitzgerald said.
Throughout the hearing, committee members repeatedly asked for suggestions to make the rules acceptable. They expect several work sessions will be needed to finalize the rules, which may well split the committee itself.