Mining will be a major issue in the Maine Legislature in 2017. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is again seeking legislative approval of weak mining rules. As we have in the past, NRCM will push for strong rules and changes to make Maine’s mining law much more protective of clean water and taxpayers.
In 2014 and 2015, NRCM fought previous versions of these weak DEP rules. The Legislature rejected the rules with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both years. DEP designed the rules to help JD Irving, a huge Canadian conglomerate, blast an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. The ore at Bald Mountain is very dangerous because of its high levels of sulfides and arsenic.
Sulfides create acid when exposed to air and water. This acid kills fish and other aquatic creatures. It also leaches out toxic heavy metals in the mined rock, such as lead and arsenic. These also harm fish, animals, and people. DEP’s weak rules would make this type of pollution, called “acid mine drainage,” much more likely. At Bald Mountain, this would be a disaster. Bald Mountain is at the headwaters of the Fish River, famous for excellent brook trout and landlocked salmon fishing. Many sporting camp owners and guides make their living from this river, and mining pollution at Bald Mountain could ruin this economically important resource forever.
DEP’s latest weak mining rules are not just a threat to the Fish River and the citizens of Aroostook County. They would also allow mining pollution throughout the state, threatening other beautiful places that have metal deposits nearby. These include Moosehead Lake, Cobscook Bay, the Western mountains, and parts of the Downeast coast.
Maine citizens have already turned out in large numbers to oppose these rules at the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP), which needed to approve the rules before they go to the Legislature. Opponents of the rules outnumbered supporters 441-2, but the BEP, made up entirely of commissioners appointed by Governor LePage, approved the rules unanimously.
Mining pollution is not a thing of the distant past, as the mining industry frequently claims. The Beal Mountain Mine in Montana, for example, leaked cyanide into nearby streams for years. This small, modern mine began operation in the late 1980s and closed in 1998 when its owner went bankrupt. So far, the federal government has spent about $10 million in taxpayer dollars cleaning up this site. The company’s $6.6 million reclamation bond is also gone. Estimated additional cleanup costs range from $25 million to $200 million.
Similarly, at the Summitville Gold Mine in Colorado, the mine began leaking cyanide in 1986, almost immediately after construction. The mine caused acid and heavy metal pollution in 1990 that “killed virtually every living thing in a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River.” The owner went bankrupt and abandoned the site in 1992. So far, taxpayers have spent $200-$250 million to clean up the site. Water treatment and site management will cost taxpayers an additional $2.5 million every year in perpetuity. Maine cannot afford disasters of this magnitude.
In August 2014, disaster struck yet another modern mine, this time in British Columbia. The tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine collapsed, leaching billions of gallons of polluted water and sludge into pristine salmon habitat. Imperial Mining Corporation built this mine in 1998.
Although the Legislature’s 2014 and 2015 rejections of weak mining rules were big wins for Maine’s environment, the battle to protect Maine from mining pollution is not over. NRCM will continue to fight to protect Maine’s clean water, wildlife, and taxpayers from mining pollution.