by Susan Sharon
Since 1973 the Maine Department of Conservation has had as its mission to promote stewardship and ensure the balanced use of Maine’s land, forest, water and mineral resources. Commissioner William Beardsley, who’s been on the job for less than a year, is taking that mission to heart. He’s putting together an inventory of Maine’s natural resources–everything from uranium to potential hydro-power–and he plans to make it available to policymakers and the public for future land use planning and more.
As the former head of the energy office in the state of Alaska, Commissioner Beardsley says he undertook a similar initiative to look tidal and other power sources. But as the head of Maine’s Conservation Department responsible for the Forest Service, 48 state parks and historic sites and nearly 600,000 acres of public reserve lands, Beardsley wants to get more information that could be useful to policy-makers, such as land use planners, and to the private sector.
“The price of gold has gone from $200 or $300 an ounce to $1,400 or $1,500 an ounce and nobody has said, ‘Well, should we be looking at gold mining?'” he says. “I mean nobody is even asking that question.”
Beardsley says there is already a lot of information on hand about Maine’s mineral resources, about where the potential for wind development, tidal and hydro-power potential and even groundwater is located. Even though this inventory has been gathered and mapped out, Beardsley wants the maps to be made more user-friendly and more extensive.
“The other day the state geologist came in and showed me a map of where the uranium is in Maine water, down in York County and over in Mount Desert, and the different amounts of uranium in water. And my question is, ‘Well, where is the uranium? Where’s the map of the uranium?’s And they said, ‘Well, we passed a law way back in the 70s that says you can’t mine uranium in Maine.’s And I think what the LePage administration has talked about is science. Everybody says, ‘What do you mean, science?’s We want to know what’s there. We shouldn’t put our heads in the sand and not look,” Beardsley says.
Susan Sharon: “I’m sure people are going to go: ‘Uranium?! Uranium in water?’s Are you having the state geologist look at where the uranium is in water and where it is elsewhere and then what would we do with that information?”
Beardsley: “Well, I think this is for health purposes, and we’re collecting this for health reasons, and it’s already being used. But it’s the very fact that if there’s some uranium in water and naturally comes–it’s like radon gas in wells. So what we’re trying to do is begin to bring this together–not to prove anything–for decision-makers, not an investor, let’s say.”
Susan Sharon: “And not for the purpose of mining uranium. That is not what you want to do?”
Beardsley: “No, no not at all. I’ve never heard anybody say there’s enough uranium in any particular concentration.”
Uranium is a radioactive element that occurs naturally in soil, rock, and surface and groundwater, usually at low levels, but sometimes at levels that can pose a risk to public health over time. It’s also a source of nuclear energy.
“I don’t think there’s any uranium to harvest,” Beardsley says. “But the idea that we might not look and have a map of where the uranium ore is because we passed a law in the 70s that says we can’t mine uranium–that’s anti-science.”
The Maine Department of Health recommends testing for uranium, which has been found in Maine wells along with radon and arsenic. Beardsley wants to know where those are too, along with lead, zinc and copper concentrates across the state.
Susan Sharon: “Do you want to do more mining?”
Beardsley: “I don’t know. It depends on whether it makes sense and whether you can recover it and whatever. Mining is a non-renewable resource, but it’s valuable and we’ve got a lot of granite. I’m not opposed. I mean we’ve got some beautiful stone work and people are building beautiful stone fireplaces and that kind of niche stuff. With regard to granite, the answer is yes, if it can done environmentally in a clean way and it’s got economies of scale. We’re not talking about strip mining or anything like that. First of all, we don’t have that layout. Are you saying we shouldn’t do mining in the state of Maine?”
Susan Sharon: “Well, I’m not the Conservation Commissioner. I’m asking you. But same for the water–are you saying there might be a way to capitalize on the water resource somehow?”
Beardsley: “Above and beyond sustainable use you say to yourself: ‘Do you just let it bubble and go down into the ocean or do you put it in bottles the way Nestle does, or do you increase agricultural production where you could double the highest anti-oxident fruit in the world, which is the Maine wild blueberry, and you can double your capacity with irrigation and stuff like that, and the answer is: Those are tradeoffs.”
Beardsley says he hopes to roll out what he says is an almanac of Maine’s natural resources in phases, with the first phase made public by the end of the year.