Democrats, environmental groups applaud vote, citing pollution concerns.
By Steve Mistler, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA – Democrats on the Legislature’s Natural Resources and Environmental Committee on Thursday rejected rules designed to revitalize metal and mineral mining in Maine, but fiercely opposed by environmental groups that feared its ecological impacts.
In a vote of 7-5, Democrats rejected the proposed rules that were preliminarily approved by the Maine Board of Environmental Protection in January. The committee also ordered that the Department of Environmental Protection redraft the rules, but wait until Feb. 1, 2016 to represent them.
The vote means the committee’s majority recommendation moves to House and Senate where it could be changed before going to Gov. Paul LePage. The party line committee vote — and the two-year delay in drafting new rules — increases the odds of a veto by LePage, who in 2012 signed a bill that ordered the DEP to draft new mining rules. That bill was designed to revive an industry that has been dormant since 1991, but was primarily driven by the prospect of extracting metals and minerals from Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, a project backed by New Brunswick-based J.D. Irving Ltd., the state’s largest landowner.
The Bald Mountain proposal, and the accompanying rule-making process, has been controversial from the beginning. Opponents have suspected that J.D. Irving Ltd., an influential lobbying force at the State House, was heavily involved in the department’s drafting the proposed regulations.
Democrats on the Natural Resources panel said the two-year delay would allow the Department of Environmental Protection more time to adopt better rules. Depending on the outcome of the upcoming gubernatorial election, that process could be overseen by a new administration.
Nick Bennett, a staff scientists for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Thursday that the election wasn’t a consideration.
“We thought the rules were very bad and that this is an appropriate move,” Bennett said.
Environmental groups have urged lawmakers to kill the new regulations and start over. The opposition has focused on several provisions, including one requiring mine operators to ensure that discharges from closed mining sites meet water quality standards “as soon as practicable,” but in most cases, no longer than 30 years.
Critics say that operators could allow certain types of contaminants to persist longer than 30 years, as long as the time period is defined and the DEP approves.
Republicans on the committee said they were perplexed by the vote, which followed multiple committee work sessions designed to break an impasse.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t just vote these rules up or down,” said Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington.
Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, said he understood Democrats’ concerns, but questioned their move to eliminate a provision to create a DEP-appointed stakeholder group to help draft the new rules.
“My mistake in helping pass the (rule-making bill in 2012) was not including that stakeholder group,” he said. “I was hoping to fix that here as a way to try and bring the two sides closer together.”
The battle over revitalizing metal and mineral mining had pit some of the state’s major business interests against environmental groups.
Business groups such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce backed the new rules, arguing that mining could be a boon for the state and Aroostook County.
Bennett told lawmakers in February that metal mining can release sulfuric acid that can pollute nearby rivers and streams, killing fish and marine life. He said the long-term effects of mining could outlast a company’s interest in a site, so Maine taxpayers could eventually be on the hook for a cleanup.
Bennett said the J.D. Irving Ltd.’s interest in Bald Mountain is the reason the Legislature and the LePage administration had moved so quickly to change the mining regulations.
The prospect of mining on Bald Mountain arose in 2012, when a bill mandated that the DEP rewrite its mining rules. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the bill, and LePage signed it. Several Democrats, including the Aroostook County delegation, also backed the proposal.
The bill was one of the most intensely lobbied measures of the session, drawing over $85,000 in lobbying activity in a single month, according to reports filed with the state ethics commission. Aroostook Timberlands, a subsidiary of JD Irving Ltd., was the biggest spender, paying lobbyists $73,348 over one month.
Decades have passed since mining last occurred in Maine. Ben Gilman, speaking for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers in February that the lack of mining could be attributed to redundant and overly prohibitive rules.
The metal at Bald Mountain could be worth as much as $7 billion, according to John S. Cummings, a geologist from Texas who discovered deposits there in the 1970s.
Opponents say the ecological and long-term costs will dwarf the economic benefits. They also took issue with changes that would allow open pit mines next to, or on, some lands owned by the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, or adjacent to conservation land held by land trusts, conservation groups or municipalities.