Opponents said the measure is too stringent and would hurt job creation in Aroostook County
AUGUSTA — A bill that adds environmental safeguards to the state’s mining law won initial support in the Maine House on Wednesday.
The House voted 91 to 49 to pass L.D. 1302, which adds water quality safeguards to the state’s mineral mining law. The bill would amend a mining law the Legislature passed last year to help the development of a potential copper-zinc mine on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Supporters said the bill would protect not only water quality but also taxpayers from clean-up costs after a mine is eventually closed. Opponents said the measure is too stringent and would hamper efforts to create jobs in Aroostook County.
Although there are no current applications for open-pit mining in Maine, New Brunswick-based JD Irving Ltd. has been evaluating the potential of the Bald Mountain site.
According to estimates by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, a mine at Bald Mountain could create 700 jobs.
Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, who opposed the measure, said Aroostook County needs the jobs because the county has been losing population for decades. He noted that a southern Maine resident testifying for the bill during a public hearing said Aroostook County is a place for “spiritual renewal.”
Aroostook County, Ayotte said, “cannot live on spiritual renewal.”
Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, was so angry about the voting results that he spoke about the bill during a debate on a tax reform proposal before the Legislature’s Taxation Committee.
“Seven hundred jobs go out the door. That bothers me,” he said. “Regulations are driving business out of here.”
Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, said during the House floor debate that mining jobs are temporary and would mostly go to people form outside the state who have mining experience. She said the bill would ensure that the mine won’t become an environmental hazard and a burden on the taxpayers after the mine is depleted and the company and the jobs go away.
The bill would require independent analysis of cleanup costs and that all water treatment be completed within 10 years after a mine’s closure.
The bill would require the mine operator to commit adequate money for cleanup after closure. The money would go into a trust that the state could access immediately after closure.
The bill also would require that a mining applicant provide information about the number and duration of jobs it will create and an estimate of how many of the jobs might be filled with people from the Maine workforce.
The last mine in Maine was the Callahan Mine in Brooksville. More than 800,000 tons of rock containing zinc and copper ore were removed before the mine was closed in 1972 after it ran out of material. It is now an EPA Superfund site, with an estimated clean up cost of $23 million.
A mine at Bald Mountain would be 50 times larger than the Callahan Mine, said Pete Didisheim, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
He said L.D. 1302 would reduce the potential of sulfuric acid and toxic metals, damaging Maine’s waters.
A mine is not a long-term economic development strategy, he said. “By definition, mining is a limited operation.”
The bill faces additional votes in the House and Senate.