Canadian conglomerate faces off against environmentalists, tourism industry; compromise appears possible
by Jon Kamp
Wall Street Journal news story
Closely held Irving, the state’s largest landowner, was the main driver behind a 2012 law that directed state regulators to replace 1991 mining rules, lawmakers say. The law’s proponents, including Republican Gov. Paul LePage, blame the regulations for stymieing mining development.
But the Legislature has the power to approve the regulatory changes and shot them down last year after both chambers shifted from Republican to Democratic control. This set the table for another go-around, which begins with a public hearing set for Wednesday. The legislature is now split between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House.
Irving declined to answer questions about its involvement but said it looks forward to the public debate. “We have been doing business in Maine for over 65 years, and our commitment is to responsible operations in the state,” spokeswoman Mary Keith said. “We believe that responsible mining can provide for vital job creation in northern Maine.”
The tension is resonating in the Maine wilderness, which is treasured by anglers and hunters but afflicted with high unemployment and a shrinking, aging population. The new rules would apply statewide, where the Maine Geological Survey lists eight sites with significant metal deposits.
“We’re all interested in seeing growth and development but at what cost?” said Larry Duchette, town manager in Portage Lake, where about 390 people live roughly 20 miles from Bald Mountain. The 61-year-old spends “as much time in the woods as possible” hunting and fishing, but said he would support mining if done carefully.
Irving’s influence stretches deep into Maine, where it is a major oil supplier. A familyrun conglomerate that owns more than 30 separate businesses ranging from lumber to shipbuilding, Irving holds about 1.25 million acres of Maine forest, according to a state estimate. Most of Maine’s forest land is privately owned.
State records indicate Irving-connected businesses spent about $100,000 on lobbying in support of the 2012 law, far outspending any other entity on the measure.
The controversy has centered on Bald Mountain, which holds an estimated 33.8 million tons of ore, state geologist Robert Marvinney said. Maine’s last metallic-mineral mine closed in 1977.
John Cummings, 84, the geologist who discovered the Bald Mountain deposit, said many companies have tried to mine it in the past but were hurt by everything from corporate disagreements, low metal prices and, after 1991, tough rules.
Bob Duchesne, a Democrat in the Maine House who backed the 2012 law, said the old regulations instituted a complex permitting process and strict rules on water quality that effectively made it impossible to mine for metal in Maine, which also has deposits of silver, zinc and other metals.
Environmental critics say the new rules dial back water protection by imprecisely defining the size of a mining area and allowing open-ended wastewater treatment. That raises the risk of polluting area waterways, where trout are a prized catch, they said. Critics are also worried the rules don’t go far enough to hold mine operators accountable for long-term cleanup.
“I just think it’s a very big risk to potentially negatively impact the tourism industry,” said Jen Brophy, who runs a sporting camp in northern Maine.
Heather Parent, acting deputy commissioner at the state Department of Environmental Protection, defended the 88-page proposed rules, saying they don’t weaken permitting or environmental protections.
As the Legislature gets ready to debate the regulations again, there appears to be some room for compromise. Tom Saviello, a Republican senator who is co-chairman of a joint Environment and Natural Resources panel, said lawmakers likely will have to refine water-quality language to assuage some environmental concerns.
Co-Chairwoman Joan Welsh, a House Democrat who voted against the 2012 bill and proposed rules last year, said she was “open to seeing what we can turn out” with the right protections for waterways and taxpayers.
—Alistair MacDonald contributed to this article.