The speed at which legislators are expected to evaluate and vote on a major rewrite of mining rules in Maine raises questions about the motives of those behind the law. Even if there is no attempt to hide the details of the changes, or if the changes in fact do not increase the risk of environmental harm, legislators must take the necessary time to become educated on the proposed new rules and engage the public to ensure a greater degree of consensus support.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, has sponsored the proposed law, LD 1853. In an OpEd published in the BDN on March 9, Mr. Martin argued that changes are due. The rules were last updated more than 20 years ago, a process in which Rep. Martin participated. He argues that in the ensuing years, “mining technology has advanced significantly.” And in the next sentence, he notes another advance: “Mineral prices have been rising.”
Though the rules would hold sway over all nonferous mining in Maine, the changes seem to be on the fast track to accommodate a project that J.D. Irving, the state’s largest landowner, wants to undertake at Bald Mountain near Ashland in Aroostook County. The company would likely conduct open-pit mining to extract rock that contains gold, copper and zinc. The rock extracted from a 600-acre area would be crushed, and then a chemical process would leach the minerals from the rock.
The Bald Mountain mine could create 300 jobs and pump millions in direct wages and in indirect economic activity into a part of Maine that struggles to find its place in a changing world. That it would come in a traditional, resource-based industry is no doubt building enthusiasm in the region for the project. Though this is unqualified good news for the region and the state, there is no need to rush the new rules.
In 1991, when the rules were revised, the process took a year. By contrast, the concept for the current bill was released on March 9, and a hearing was held before the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee on March 14.
Environmental lobbyists such as Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited say they haven’t witnessed such a fast-paced process in the last 15 years. Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation said as the law is drafted, “it is breathtakingly broad and such an overreach.”
Setting rhetoric aside, it is clear that the bill does more than tweak the existing rules. In fact, the bill completely replaces the old rules. It removes the Land Use Regulation Commission from the review process and limits what the Department of Environmental Protection can require of the applicant.
Open-pit mining has the potential to cause serious, permanent damage to streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. When the rock containing the minerals is brought to the surface from depths of 60-500 feet, it is exposed to surface water which in turn begins a chemical process that releases other chemicals. Gold, copper and zinc are sulfide minerals, and so the debris that remains after extraction could leach sulfuric acid into nearby groundwater, which kills fish and other life in streams.
While LD 1853 seems to have been prompted by the J.D. Irving proposal for Bald Mountain, mineral maps show significant deposits elsewhere in the state, including along the coast. With the rise in price, more applications for mining could come soon. But this is no reason to rush changes. We rely on the Legislature to weigh such changes dispassionately with an eye to protecting our environment, health and way of life.