A proposal to revise the state’s open pit mining regulations to improve the prospects for an operation in Aroostook County is drawing fire from critics, who cite environmental concerns. Democratic state Rep. John Martin, of Eagle Lake, who introduced the proposed changes, says they could benefit a mining site at Bald Mountain north of Ashland, and create hundreds of jobs in northern Maine.
The price of precious minerals is surging and that could mean a bonanza for some northern Maine landowners who would like to explore open pit mining at Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain, just west of Portage Lake.
Current state mining laws would have to be revised to facilitate such a project, and state Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat, told members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee that the state must move quickly to investigate the scope of legal revisions to get the mining project up and running.
“The reason why we move this quickly as we did was basically to try to do it this session in order to make sure that we have an availability to, hopefully, by next spring start the process of exploration by finding that process,” Martin said. “Because remember, it is not going to happen overnight.
Martin says the preliminary studies point to deposits of gold, silver, copper and zinc at Bald Mountain, whose landowners, the Irving Corp. and Prentiss and Carlisle, are interested in exploring. A successful operation, Martin says, could bring 300 good-paying jobs to Aroostook County — and that employment can’t arrive soon enough for supporters, such as Jason Parent of Caribou.
“Just 15 years ago when I worked in Madawaska as director of the Chamber of Commerce up there, there were about 1,500 people employed at the paper mill in Madawaska at the time, and then another 800 employed at the Edmundson mill in New Brunswick,” Parent says. “Now those two mills combined employ 800 people. So there’s been a shedding of 1,500 jobs just there alone in that particular complex. So 300 jobs in Aroostook County in short order here and for a lasting period of time would be significant.”
State Sen. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, has seen his share of unemployment in Aroostook County, but he’s also sensitive to the detrimental impact to the environment that historically has been associated with open pit mining. Jackson says that technology has come a long way in the last 20 years and he’s convinced that the project can move forward without damaging the water quality or the region’s hunting and fishing economies.
“If this committee and the DEP can get over the water quality issue, then I think we’re on the right track,” Jackson said. “If you don’t think so, then I would be the first one to say we shouldn’t move along with this. There’s nothing worth ruining the environment in Aroostook County. But I think from all the conversations that I’ve had that there is a way to do this and do it right and do it so it’s acceptable to everyone.”
But critics of the plan worry that the mining proposal could have a short life span and then dry up with the changing dynamics of the international metals market. Ben Townsend is an Augusta attorney.
“The history of mining has been that it is very cyclical, that as there becomes a mismatch between metals prices and the cost of extraction or the cost of transport then all of a sudden it’s no longer economic, and the history is that mining companies walk away,” Townsend said. “So you need to be very careful about obtaining appropriate assurances that will be in place when the time comes.
And Ivy Frignoca of the Conservation Law Foundation says there’s very little potential for aftermarket uses of mining property once minerals are extracted from the earth.
“Mining of this magnitude does not leave behind swimming quarries. Because of sulfuric acid—it may look pretty but that’s because they’re dead bodies of water,” Frignoca said. “So there’s a lot here to be considered with this type of development and it should not be hastily done.”
Rep. Martin told the committee members that he would not be opposed if the panel wanted to limit any new mining changes exclusively to the Bald Mountain project.