by Andy O’Brien
Free Press news story
No metals have been mined in Maine since 1977, according to the Maine Geological Survey, but the LePage administration is hoping to revive the dormant industry if he can elect enough allies to the Legislature this November. Last Thursday, Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unveiled its third effort to weaken mining rules before a meeting of the Board of Environmental Protection, which will review the proposal over the next couple months before making recommendations to the Legislature when it returns to Augusta in January.
The rules come as a result of a massive lobbying effort by the Canadian corporation J.D. Irving, which brought forward a bill in 2012 to direct the DEP to rewrite Maine’s mining standards to aid in the development of an open pit mine to extract precious metallic minerals on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. However, the DEP’s revised rules were rejected twice during the subsequent two sessions.
Gold, silver, copper and zinc deposits were discovered in the northern Maine region in 1977, but after the company Blackhawk Mining expressed an interest in mining the area, the Legislature passed stricter environmental regulations in 1991. J.D. Irving argues that the current law makes it “virtually impossible” to extract precious metals and that “new and advanced” technologies have made the process much safer. The LePage administration contends that mining would provide an economic boost to a depressed region of the state.
Open-pit mining requires the removal of soil and rock above the targeted mineral deposit, followed by blasting and excavating, and then crushing, grinding and processing the ore to remove the precious minerals. Obtaining one ton of copper requires the processing of 200 tons of ore. Besides Bald Mountain, the largest volcanic sedimentary deposits from which metallic minerals can be extracted are found in areas around Cobscook Bay in Washington County, Moosehead Lake and in the Western Mountains. There are also substantial sulfide deposits in the Coastal Maine belt, including in Warren, where a mining company submitted a proposal to extract nickel, copper and cobalt in the 1980s. The proposal was withdrawn after the town enacted an ordinance restricting the practice.
Back in May, after the Legislature defeated the governor’s most recent effort to weaken mining laws, Gov. LePage said that the state missed out on a “rare opportunity” to “generate millions of dollars in revenue and create hundreds of good-paying jobs in Northern Maine.” Last Thursday, DEP Deputy Commissioner Melanie Loyzim stated that the new rules offered better protection for the environment, despite charges from the environmental community that the move could leave waterways vulnerable to contamination.
“Leaving the rules as they are is not a positive environmental outcome,” said Loyzim. “We’re asking to put environmental protection standards into our rules that don’t exist right now. If they are not adopted and they’re not codified into a rule, then all we have to work on are the more generic provisions in the statute. If someone comes in tomorrow for a permit we don’t have specific standards to hold them to.”
The proposed rules include blasting standards, financial assurance that cleanup costs will be paid for by the company, a water quality monitoring plan and plans for the management of excavation and processing waste. The rules state that municipalities would also have the right to regulate and control mining activities. The proposal would prohibit the removal of ore “in, on or under great ponds, rivers, brooks and streams, and coastal wetlands.” Mining would also be prohibited within a certain distance of national and state parks; national wilderness areas; national wildlife refuges; The Allagash Wilderness Waterway; state-owned wildlife management areas; state or national historic sites; and rivers designated as critical habitat for Atlantic salmon.
However, groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) and Maine Audubon argue that the proposed rules will still leave the state’s lakes and streams vulnerable to toxic heavy metals and highly corrosive sulphuric acid, which forms when sulphide minerals are exposed to air and moisture. Mines produce large quantities of excavated waste rock as well as “tailings,” which is the residue left over after the valuable ore is separated from the rock. Because Maine is a wet state that averages about 40 inches of rain and snow a year, mining regulators say it’s critical to manage the millions of gallons of mine water to avoid runoff of sulfuric acid and other toxics.
Opponents also point out that mining companies have a record of contaminating the environment with toxic wastewater runoff, then going bust, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for the cleanupThe strict 1991 rules were developed following an environmental disaster at the abandoned Callahan mine in Brooksville, which operated from the 1880s to 1972. Three years after the mine’s mineral reserves were depleted, evidence of contamination was discovered and it became a Superfund site in the 2000s, leaving taxpayers on the hook to pay $23 million in cleanup costs. A 2013 Dartmouth College study found elevated levels of toxic heavy metals in the Goose Pond tidal estuary in Brooksville, which is thought to be caused by runoff from the mine.
Geologist John S. Cummings, who first discovered the mineral deposits at Bald Mountain in 1977, has noted in correspondence with the Maine Legislature that there are extremely high quantities of arsenic — at an amount of 29,000 parts per million, which is 2.9 million times the level the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking water. Cummings has estimated that 94 percent (or 30 million tons) of the sulfide deposit in Bald Mountain would end up as tailings and has said exploration of the deposits could be a “debacle.”
NRCM staff scientist Nick Bennett argues that new mining rules would allow “unlimited pollution of groundwater in mining areas” and that the financial assurance offered in the proposal is not enough to cover a potential disaster. He dismissed the argument that “new and improved” mining methods will ensure waterways are protected.
“If that statement were true, JD Irving would not need new, less protective mining rules that would allow them to cause unlimited contamination of Maine’s groundwater in mining areas,” wrote Bennett. “Given the fractured bedrock geology in Maine, it simply isn’t possible to contaminate large quantities of groundwater without also contaminating surface water. These rules will result in large-scale groundwater pollution and surface water pollution.”
He noted that the Summitville Mine in Colorado and the Beal Mountain and Zortmann-Landusky Mines in Montana were both considered modern mines but have ended up costing hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. Bennett added that while the rules say they would protect public lands, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters from mining activities, the language in the law also states that the DEP’s proposed setbacks for the water bodies “shall apply unless and until another state or federal agency with management authority determines that mining is allowed.”
“This is some of the strangest language for rules that NRCM has ever seen,” wrote Bennett in testimony. “DEP is essentially admitting it does not know its own jurisdiction. That is unacceptable given the need for clear and protective mining rules. If DEP is concerned that it lacks jurisdiction over the specific waterbodies and lands … how can it also be confident that it has jurisdiction to prohibit mining in, on and under the waterbodies …?”
Matt Scott, a retired chief Maine DEP biologist, noted that Bald Mountain is located close to Clayton Lake and Carr Pond, as well as streams that flow into the Fish River, which is critical habitat for fish like the eastern brook trout.
“Maine is 90 percent of the remaining habitat of this species in the Northeast,” said Scott. “So I think we should be doing everything we can to protect this species. We should not be developing rules to encourage mining in those habitat areas. And therefore mining near these habitats is highly risky to the survival of the species.”