A single vote sinks a bill that advocates said would protect water quality but opponents said would hamper job creation.
AUGUSTA — A bill that would add environmental safeguards to Maine mining laws was rejected by a single vote in the Maine Senate on Thursday amid opposition from northern Maine lawmakers.
In an 18-17 vote, the Senate rejected a largely Democratic version of the bill, at odds with a 91-49 vote in favor of the bill in the House on Wednesday. The Senate’s move makes it unlikely to pass, though it faces further action in the House.
L.D. 1302, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, would amend a mining law passed last year to add water quality safeguards. Last year’s law was passed to help the development of a potential copper-zinc mine on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Although there are currently no applications for open-pit mining in Maine, New Brunswick-based JD Irving Ltd. has been evaluating the potential of the Bald Mountain site. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has estimated a mine there could bring 700 jobs to the area.
Supporters of the bill, led by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, have said the bill would protect water from contaminants like sulfuric acid and toxic metals, also shielding taxpayers from paying clean-up costs after a mine is closed.
The bill would mandate an independent analysis of cleanup costs and all water treatment would have to be done within 10 years after a mine’s closure. It would also the mine operator to commit adequate money for cleanup after closure, putting it into a trust that the state could access immediately following closure.
The last mine in Maine was the Callahan Mine in the coastal Hancock County town of Brooksville. More than 800,000 tons of rock containing zinc and copper ore were removed before the mine was closed in 1972. It is now an EPA Superfund site, with an estimated clean-up cost of $23 million.
But opponents, including the chamber, have said the measure is too stringent and would hamper efforts to create jobs in Aroostook County. The proposal divides lawmakers largely along geographic lines. The LePage administration also opposed the bill in testimony from the Department of Environmental Protection.
Though McCabe’s bill is mostly backed by Democrats, the only four Democrats to oppose the bill in the House were from Aroostook and Penobscot counties.
In the Senate, two prominent northern Democrats, Majority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash and Emily Cain of Orono, spoke against the bill.
Jackson said though he worried about the impact of mining on the environment, the bill looks like “an attempt to stop mining in Maine.”
“I’ve lived there my whole life. I don’t want to be the guy that ruined that part of the state of Maine,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s incumbent upon me to let this process play out because Aroostook County is depressed. There’s no doubt about that.”
Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, said on the floor that rejecting the bill outright puts the establishment of any safeguards on mining at risk.
The vote from Cain, who was the House minority leader for Democrats in the last Legislature, was a surprise to the bill’s proponents, said Pete Didisheim, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Though the Senate rejected the more stringent bill supported by the majority of a legislative committee, it agreed on a watered-down version supported by the committee’s minority after the vote.
The minority report removes most of the provisions of the bill, including a requirement for an independent analysis of cleanup costs and the establishment of a trust that the state could access to pay for clean-up costs if necessary.
It also requires treatment be completed within 30 years after a mine is closed, rather the 10 years as called for in the bill. Current law has no time limit.
“The minority report doesn’t do anything,” Didisheim said. “It’s business as usual.”