Maine hasn’t had an active mining operation in more than two decades. But last year, Maine’s largest landowner, J.D. Irving Limited, said it would like to explore the possibility of mining for copper, zinc and other metals on land it owns in Aroostook County. In response, lawmakers passed a bill to rewrite Maine’s mining regulations. But environmental groups worry that a consultant with ties to the mining industry is doing most of the work. And as Susan Sharon reports, they’ve come back this year to support bills designed to include more safeguards.
One bill, sponsored by Independent Rep. Ben Chipman from Portland, would repeal the changes to mining laws enacted last session. Chipman told a packed public hearing before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee that the bill approved last year rolls back environmental protections.
“It weakened groundwater protection standards. It redefined a mining area so that less territory would have to be restored after mining, and it generally ushered in the prospect for destructive, grand scale open pit mining,” Chipman said.
Open pit mining is a technique in which minerals are extracted from an open pit close to the surface. Environmentalists say it could be especially damaging to Bald Mountain, which is where J.D. Irving wants to explore for metals. That’s because Bald Mountain is at the headwaters of the Fish River, which provides some of the best brook trout fishing in the state of Maine, worth millions of dollars to the Maine economy.
And Dr. David Chambers says when it comes to mining, there is no end to monitoring.”You can never completely walk away from a mine, which is one of the messages I left with the Legislature,” he says.
Chambers is president of the Montana-based Center for Science in Public Participation, a non-profit corporation formed to provide technical assistance on mining and water quality to public interest groups, businesses and government about mining. Chambers briefed the Environment and Natural Resources Committee last week. His visit was paid for by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“When you do a mine, 99 percent of everything that comes out of the mine remains at that mine site as waste, and that becomes a longterm management issue,” he says. “It can create contaminants that get into surface and groundwaters. And again, these are problems that remain on that mine site forever.”
But Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, who lives about 20 miles away from Bald Mountain, takes issue with environmental groups and lawmakers from southern Maine trying to interfere with his region’s attempts at economic development. Preliminary estimates suggest Irving’s proposed mine could create up to 700 jobs and generate $45 million to the regional economy.
“It’s tiresome that people keep telling us, thinking that we’re ignorant, we don’t know how to do anything right and be environmentally safe,” Jackson says, “when I think that most of the area has been pretty well protected and we know how to be good stewards.”
Jackson advised members of the committee to give the legislation passed last year a chance. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, in conjunction with a hired consultant, is working up draft mining rules that are expected to receive public input early next year.
Pete Mahar, an engineering expert who specializes in landfill permitting, agrees that the rulemaking should be left to DEP.
“I know the staff there. They are as experienced as anyone in the country in implementing and regulating these industries,” he says. “And again, this is just a big landfill or two big landfills. That’s all it’s gonna be.”
Concerned that the risk of open-pit mining could extend beyond Bald Mountain, Democratic Rep. Jeff McCabe has introduced a measure that would prohibit any mine that would require perpetual wastewater treatment. The measure would also make mining permits contingent on proof that at least one mine has operated in the U.S. in a similar climate to Maine’s “without polluting groundwater or surface water.”
And supporters say the bill would protect Maine taxpayers by requiring an independent, third-party estimate of cleanup costs, and ensure that mining companies secure that sum in a trust. Nick Bennett is a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which supports McCabe’s bill.
“The take home message for us is if there’s going to be mining in Maine it better be done right,” he says, “because we have huge numbers of jobs that depend on the resources these types of mines will impact.”
But how mining can be done right is precisely the question for Maine lawmakers, who must weigh both the environmental and economic consequences of allowing the current mining rules to move forward or rewriting them once again.