Statement of Nick Bennett, NRCM Staff Scientist
“The Maine House and Senate have given final approval to LD 1772, a resolve rejecting the weak metal mining rules from the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP). The Natural Resources Council of Maine appreciates the work of legislators in both houses to defeat these weak rules that would have put Maine’s environment and taxpayers at serious risk from mining pollution. LD 1772 now will be sent to the governor’s desk. We urge the governor to sign the bill into law, which would send the DEP back to the drawing board to develop new rules that actually protect Maine’s clean waters and ensure that future generations are not stuck with the costs of cleaning up polluted mine sites.
“The proposed rules would not have protected Maine’s rivers, lakes, streams, or groundwater from arsenic and sulfuric acid pollution, and the rules would have left Maine people paying huge sums to clean-up mining sites long after a mine had been shut down.
“The rules would have allowed mines that are so polluting, they would have required treatment of toxic wastewater for hundreds or even thousands of years. No company lasts this long, and periodic treatment plant failures are inevitable. Allowing such dangerous mines is a recipe for environmental disasters that Maine citizens will pay to clean up.
“The rules would have allowed unlimited pollution of groundwater under the ‘mining area,’ a term that was poorly defined and could have included very large areas of land. Polluted groundwater inevitably spreads to surface water, but the rules did not require ‘mining areas’ to be as small as possible to limit the spread of pollution.
“The rules would have allowed construction of mines on or under many areas of public land, including those purchased with voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program. Mainers didn’t pay to conserve beautiful parts of our state only to have them turned into mines.
“The rules also would have allowed mines under or next to the vast majority of Maine’s lakes and most pristine rivers. Maine’s beautiful rivers and lakes are a huge part of Maine’s brand and economy. Maine lakes alone generate $3.5 billion per year for our economy and support 52,000 jobs.
“Lawmakers took the right action for our rivers, lakes, and streams, and for Maine people, by rejecting these rules and directing the Maine DEP to go back to the drawing board.”
In the final weeks of the 2012 legislative session, the Maine Legislature passed a bill (LD 1853) to weaken Maine’s 1991 mining regulations at the request of J.D. Irving, a huge Canadian conglomerate and the largest landowner in Maine. Most of the discussion of mining in Maine has focused on Bald Mountain, owned by J.D. Irving, in central Aroostook County. Irving has proposed to build a large, open-pit mine there. The impacts on the Bald Mountain area could be enormous. Mining pollution would likely drain into the Fish River and the Fish River Chain of Lakes, which provide some of the best brook trout fishing in the country.
But the risk of metal mining pollution extends beyond Bald Mountain. There are many other places in Maine where companies may want to mine. Mining operations involving sulfide deposits, which are present in Maine, create huge pollution problems. The waste rock (rock that contains no valuable ore), and the tailings (which are the leftover materials after ore has been removed from rock) react with air and water to form sulfuric acid. This acid gets into ground and surface waters, leaching out toxic heavy metals from the surrounding rock. This destroys water quality and aquatic life and is called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). It is a serious problem, often afflicting large areas around sulfide mining operations.
Despite the well-documented dangers of metal mining, the 2012 mining bill (LD 1853) directed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to rewrite and weaken existing protective rules that govern mining operations. DEP “outsourced” development of the draft rules to a mining industry contractor. Predictably, these draft rules were weak. The Board of Environmental Protection (BEP), the citizen board that oversaw the mining rulemaking process, made them even weaker, despite overwhelming public testimony in favor of more protective rules. LD 1772 required DEP to come back to the Legislature by February 2016 with new proposed rules.