by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
Maine lawmakers are considering controversial new mining regulations that have been approved by the Board of Environmental Protection but face stiff opposition from the public and from a coalition of more than two dozen environmental groups. The rules were drafted by the LePage administration, which maintians that they are based in science, legally sound and protective of the environment. Critics say the proposed regs put Maine’s environment and taxpayers at risk.
Interest in Maine’s mining rules was revived two years ago when the J.D. Irving company expressed its interest in constructing an open-pit mine on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, at the headwaters of the Fish River. But Irving claimed the state’s current rules were too onerous to move forward.
So, the Maine DEP began work to both strengthen regulatory oversight and streamline permitting under Maine’s mining rules, which would apply to the entire state if the Legislature approves them.
“The biggest problem with these rules is that they allow mines that are so heavily polluting that you will have to treat their wastewater in perpetuity,” said Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Bennett says the rules allow open pit mines next to almost all of Maine’s lakes and some of the state’s most spectacular rivers, as well as on, and adjacent to, many public lands. Bennett is worried about the toxic makeup of the wastewater, which is filled with heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, copper and zinc, and about the reaction of mineral deposits with air and water to form sulfuric acid.
Bennett says one treatment plant failure could kill miles of rivers and streams. And he says it’s pretty clear that it won’t be the mining company that winds up paying for the cleanup.
“Companies don’t last in perpetuity,” he said. “So, if you’ve got to treat pollution from a mine for thousands of years, the only entity that’s going to pay for that is the public. The government is going to have to take over that.”
“The rules you have before you today from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Board of Environmental Protection have gone through a very vigorous process,” said Anthony Hourihan, one of only a handful of people to speak in favor of the proposed rules during a public hearing on Monday.
Hourihan’s company, Aroostook Resources, Inc., is a subsidiary of J.D. Irving. He points out that the DEP hired a third-party consultant to help develop the rules with input from environmental groups and other stakeholders.
“These rules you have before you aren’t perfect but I feel they’re workable,” Hourihan said. “And I believe these rules would allow responsible development of mining industry in this state.”
Environmental groups say the consultant, Michigan-based North Jackson Company, is a mining industry insider, and therefore not objective in balancing commercial and environmental interests. They also say that much of the work was done behind closed doors and in the face of overwhelming public opposition.
Hourihan says his own company objects to at least one provision of the rules: a one-mile setback between mine sites and protected lands. And he says the rules do include key provisions that both sides wanted. Among them: a financial assurance requirement before mining begins; a mining plan that covers design, development, reclamation, closure and post-closure prior to permitting; and an analysis and classification of expected mine waste.
Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, asked members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee to consider the economic opportunity that metallic mining offers northern Maine and the rest of the state.
“The future of Aroostook County and the state of Maine is dependent on creation of high-level jobs, which an industry such as mining will bring,” Fowler said. “The population of Aroostook County has steadily declined over the past few years and will continue to without industry and the development of good jobs to attract ambitious new residents.”
But Sen. Chris Johnson, a Democrat from Somerville, asked the panel to reject the rules, which he says won’t allow citizens groups to intervene in the regulatory process, and will not undergo final review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“I am here to make plain that expecting to slip environmentally disastrous rules into place without EPA review, and disenfranchising citizen groups as intervenors, are both unacceptable and disreputable,” Jackson said. “They’re inadequate rules produced by a corrupt process.”
Lawmakers also heard testimony that prior to Irving’s interest in Bald Mountain, two other mining companies had invested in mineral exploration at the site. Both chose to walk away from what was perceived as a “high risk” project.