by Adrienne DiPiazza
WABI-TV news story
When many people think of mining in the state of Maine they remember environmental disasters of the past, before regulations were put in place.
The initiative to bring mining back to Maine has not come without strong opposition from many lawmakers and environmental groups..
Thursday the Environmental and Natural Resources committee voted to approve a bill that includes a moratorium on mining and DEP proposed mining rules.
JD Irving’s Director of Land Development met with the people who would be most affected if mining were allowed at Bald Mountain.
“We’re not saying this project is happening. We’re saying we need to step far enough forward in the process so we can get some experts involved at a much finer level to deem if it’s feasible or not,” says Anthony Hourihan, Director of Land Development for JD Irving.
“Let’s say if we have nine inches of rain in a 24 hour period. That’s what I’m concerned about,” says Wayne Gagnon of Portage.
The impact on area water is still the top concern to many.
“The way they’re fine tuning, the way they are going to go about mining is positive, but a lot of different things could take and screw things up, the weather especially,” Gagnon said.
Environmentalists say the area has so much sulfur and arsenic, even the proposed regulations wouldn’t be enough.
“Putting a mine in the headwaters of where a lot of brook trout streams are is about the worst place you could put a mine,” says Nick Bennett with the Natural Resource Council of Maine.
But some locals who are for the idea of mining say they trust the company’s intentions.
“I know that if we have the technology today in place that they are going to do everything to sustain water quality,” said Hollie Umphry, Former Portage Town Manager.
Experts say the design of the mine is crucial to how well the water is protected.
“Open pit mines are much more dangerous because they generate enormous amounts of waste rock,” explains Bennett.
Irving says the engineering of the mine is still far off and would depend on feasibility studies.
“There’s different techniques out there that include kind of a combination of open pit and what they call stopes that are slanted,” said Hourihan
Locals say the thought of new jobs for an area in desperate need is tempting.
“Now the mills closed down, whoa, we don’t have no backup plan. If they had a Bald Mountain, don’t you worry. They don’t want to hurt the environment either, but when it comes time to feed your family,” says Jim Dumond, a retired Game Warden who lives in the area.
“How many people will that employ in that process here,” asked Jim Kelley of Sanford.
Irving says the mine would directly create 300 jobs and another 400 supporting. But opponents are skeptical.
“Those temporary economic benefits that are always held out as a carrot and they don’t often come to fruition,” said Senator Cathy Breen, (D) District 25.
Based on the size of the ore deposit, Irving estimates the mine would operate for about 20 years. They’d need workers to build the mine and close it too.
But many don’t want to put the area’s clean water resource at risk.
“Course you have fishing, and we have our farming and our woods business, that’s it and if any of those three things are gone, we’re hurting,” Gagnon said.
“There are those of us that don’t want Maine to be in uncharted territory,” Breen said.
“It’s not an experiment, every site is specific to that site and the geology, but its been done many times over and over,” said Hourihan.
The former Portage Town Manager says she’s for responsible mining, but the rest don’t agree on what that means.
“I think the only way that you can do this responsibly is to walk away from that site that’s a very dangerous site,” said Bennett.
“It comes down to how do you do it responsibly, how do you protect the water, how do you create jobs, and 700 jobs in Aroostook County would be a big deal, but it’s got to be done right or it shouldn’t be done,” Hourihan said.
The bill must still go through the legislative process before any mining can begin in Maine. Any mining companies are then required to do a two year environmental study. Irving says they expect it to take three to five years to build a mine and get operating.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan) says the rules do not go far enough to protect tax payers. McCabe released a statement Thursday saying, “Clearly, many of us continue to have serious concerns about water quality and how it relates to public health and aquatic life, including species like brook trout. As they stand now, these rules do not go far enough to protect taxpayers from clean-up costs and out great ponds from pollution. These rules will have a high hurdle to clear in the House.”