As the BEP gets ready for its meeting, public response is running strongly against the proposed changes.
The state Board of Environmental Protection will meet Thursday to continue reviewing more than 1,000 pages of public comment against changes proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection that would ease Maine’s mining regulations.
In comments on the DEP website, the public response has run strongly against the proposed new mining rules, with at least 2,300 people and organizations – including 2,000 who expressed their opposition by petition – voicing alarm.
Opponents say the regulations would clear the way for mining in Maine without safeguards against many potential problems, said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The opposition reflected in the comments is not new or surprising to the DEP, said Jessamine Logan, director of communications for the department. But, she said, the staff members who were involved in the rule-making process felt the department followed the statute, balancing mining interests and environmental protection.
The rules drafted by the DEP and its consultant, North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich., will be considered and possibly modified before being sent to the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee in early 2014.
BEP Chairman Robert Foley of Wells said some significant changes are likely.
“There’s always changes,” said board member Richard Gould of Greenville.
Maine’s mining law has not been changed in more than 20 years. Legislation passed in 2012 requires that new regulations be proposed to the Legislature by early next year.
The proposed changes have evoked fierce debate among legislators, environmental advocates, residents in northern Maine – where mining likely would be proposed first – and representatives of the mining industry. The changes will govern virtually every aspect of planning, permitting, operating and terminating a mining operation in Maine. No company has applied for a mining permit, according to the DEP. But JD Irving Ltd. of New Brunswick has demonstrated interest in mining for gold, silver and copper at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. It has said that about 700 jobs would likely be created. Other estimates set the number at less than 20.
The proposed regulatory changes cover an array of environmental, fiscal and technical issues regarding metal mining. Foley said the board is working with the DEP to craft rules that would make mining viable in Maine and streamline the permit process while ensuring environmental protection at and near mining sites.
Many environmental advocates aren’t convinced that the draft rule, in its present form, would accomplish that.
Didisheim said the opposition centers on safeguards against water pollution, the time that mining companies would be given to clean up closed operations and assurances that Maine taxpayers would not be left to pay to restore a site – a process that could go on indefinitely.
Opponents of the changes say that the requirements for water protection are inadequate and that mining companies would be given too much time (30 years) to clean up closed sites, Didisheim said.
Susan Davies of Liberty, a former water quality standards coordinator for the DEP, said in testimony posted on the BEP website, “In my professional experience open-pit mining is near the top of the list of the most damaging activities that humans inflict on the natural environment. Even with extreme vigilance, metallic mining will contaminate ground and surface waters of Maine.”
Ben Gilman of Gorham, speaking for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce in favor of the draft rule, said, “Current regulations are so restrictive that no new mines have been developed since the laws were changed in 1991 – a true illustration of zero growth in this industry. … Revising the rules and regulations may well expand the mining industry and, in turn, strengthen our economic outlook.”
Including Thursday’s meeting, the BEP has four sessions scheduled before the Jan. 10 deadline for provisional adoption of the changes, as required by law.
Foley said he will not hesitate to ask for an extension if the board has not completed its work to members’ satisfaction.
If the board recommends major changes to the draft, those amendments will face another public hearing. After the board votes, the proposal will need support from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee before it goes to the Legislature.