by Andy O’Brien
One of the most contentious environmental battles that will be fought when the Legislature reconvenes in January will likely be over metallic mineral mining in Maine.
In 2012, lobbyists representing the Canadian corporation J.D. Irving, Limited brought forward a bill to rewrite Maine’s mining standards to aid in the development of an open pit mine to extract precious metallic minerals on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Supporters of the measure have promoted mining as a benefit to an economically depressed region. Critics point out that mining companies have a record of contaminating the environment with toxic wastewater runoff, then going bust, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for the cleanup. Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited argue that the new proposed rules will leave the state’s lakes and streams vulnerable to toxic heavy metals as well as highly corrosive sulphuric acid, which forms when sulphide minerals are exposed to air and moisture.
Besides Bald Mountain, the largest volcanic sedimentary deposits from which metallic minerals can be extracted are found in areas around Cobscook Bay in Washington County, Moosehead Lake and in the Western Mountains. There are also substantial sulfide deposits in the Coastal Maine belt, including in Warren, where a mining company submitted a proposal to extract nickel, copper and cobalt in the 1980s. The proposal was withdrawn after the town enacted an ordinance restricting the practice.
Earlier this year, Democrats and environmental groups attempted to impose tighter water quality standards for mineral mining, but were thwarted by a coalition of Republicans and two current Democratic Congressional primary contenders, Sen. Troy Jackson (Aroostook County) and Sen. Emily Cain (Penobscot County).
Currently, the Board of Environmental Protection is deliberating over the newly drafted set of mining rules developed by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Michigan-based environmental science and engineering firm North Jackson Company, which has ties to the mining industry. The revised rules must be approved by the Legislature before they can go into effect.
Regulatory climate "inhospitable" to mining
At a forum at the University of Southern Maine last Thursday sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech), representatives from the mining industry and environmental groups gathered to debate the new proposed mining rules.
Tom Doyle, an attorney with the lobbying firm Pierce Atwood, which represents J.D. Irving, argued that Maine’s existing mining rules constitute a "de facto ban," since they require mining permits to be granted for only one year, renewable for up to five years. There are also multiple permits needed, which the new rules consolidate under one permit through the DEP.
"The application requirements will be much clearer," said Doyle. "No mining developer is going to undertake a mining project if it has to go through the possibility that it may not be renewed after just five years."
Under the new rules, mine operators will have 30 years to complete cleanup of the affected area after the mine’s closure – a time period that environmental groups say is far too long, given the history of environmental negligence by mining companies.
Open-pit mining requires the removal of soil and rock above the targeted mineral deposit, followed by blasting and excavating, and finally crushing, grinding and processing the ore to remove the precious minerals. Obtaining one ton of copper requires the processing of 200 tons of ore.
Peter Maher, an environmental engineering consultant with experience in mining waste disposal, said mines produce large quantities of excavated waste rock as well as "tailings," which is the residue left over after the valuable ore is separated from the rock. Because Maine is a wet state that averages about 40 inches of rain and snow a year in much of the state, Maher said it’s critical to manage the millions of gallons of mine water to avoid runoff of sulfuric acid and other toxics.
"This formation of acid rock drainage can go on forever," said Maher. "You need to properly contain and encapsulate these materials, responsibly regulate the management of these materials. Applying the most advanced technologies available is critical to avoiding any adverse environmental impact."
However, Maher insisted that with new technologies for handling waste rock and tailing disposal areas, the mining industry in the past 20 years has developed safe and effective ways of containing and treating water prior to discharge. Under the proposed new rules, discharges of pollutants may occur within a mining area, but may not result in contamination of groundwater beyond the affected area. Supporters of the measure say the rules clearly state that mining operations are prohibited from harming the air quality, scenic character, or water quality of an area around a mine.
"It’s in the economic interest of the mine developer to treat that water in as short a period of time as possible, because the longer you’re out there treating water, the more costly it’s going to be to close that mine," said Doyle.
Doyle added that metallic minerals are used every day – in homes, computers, cell phones, appliances, cars, and other devices – and the project would provide an economic boost to the state.
"Maine is a great place to live and work if you can find work," said Doyle. "I’m tired, though, of our regulatory climate being so inhospitable to business, or at least perceived as such."
Record provides reasons to be nervous
"You don’t have to look very far to find reasons to be nervous about what the mining industry has done in the past," said Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Bennett presented a photo of the Callahan Mine in Brooksville, which has been designated a federal Superfund site with an estimated cleanup cost of $23 million in taxpayer money. Two hundred truckloads of contaminated material have been removed since the mine closed in 1972. A recent Dartmouth College study found elevated levels of toxic heavy metals in the Goose Pond estuary in Brooksville, which is thought to be caused by runoff from the mine. Bennett also cited a study by the Navy that found sediments at the site were 100 percent lethal to laboratory organisms compared with sediments from Pearl Harbor that were 40 percent lethal. According to EPA estimates, it will be another five to ten years before Callahan Mine is cleaned up.
Bennett also referenced the Kerramerican Mine in Blue Hill, which operated until the early 1970s. In the mid 1990s, Bennett said investigations showed that there had been erosion of the tailings cover and that an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 pounds per year of dissolved zinc from waste rock was being released to surface waters. Unlike the Callahan Mine, after litigation, the owner of the Kerramerican Mine footed the bill for the installation of an estimated $10 million geosynthetic tailings cover system and initiated a five-year monitoring program. Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville), who represents the towns where both mines are located, has been a strong critic of the new mining rules and last spring challenged the economic argument for mining exploration.
"According to newspaper reports in 1964, the Black Hawk Mining operation was announced with great fanfare and the expectation that it would be able to run for 10 to 20 years, employ 200 to 300 workers, and produce many millions of tons of ore," said Chapman of the Kerramerican Mine. "The mine ran for five years, employed 100, and produced only one million tons."
Bennett also cited several mines in the West as examples of sites that have caused environmental damage, leaving taxpayers with the bill, including the Summitville Mine in Colorado and the Beal Mountain and Landusky mines in Montana. All three mines ended up leaching toxic runoff and all of the companies went bankrupt, leaving the public with millions of dollars in cleanup costs. Most alarming, said Bennett, is that both the Beal Mountain and the Landusky mines have water treatment facilities that must run "in perpetuity," which could mean thousands of years.
"There are going to be impacts to the environment and they are going to be significant"
The deposits of copper, zinc, gold and silver in Bald Mountain were first discovered by geologist John S. Cummings in 1977. However, as Cummings has noted in correspondence with the Maine Legislature, there are also extremely high quantities of arsenic – at an amount of 29,000 parts per million, which is 2.9 million times the level the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking water. Cummings has estimated that 94 percent (or 30 million tons) of the sulfide deposit in Bald Mountain would end up as tailings and has said exploration of the deposits could be a "debacle."
As NRCM scientist Bennett notes, the Bald Mountain site is located close to Clayton Lake and Carr Pond, as well as streams that flow into the Fish River. Bennett said the pristine waters of northern Maine are one of the few areas of the Northeast where brook trout are still vibrant, and they are extremely sensitive to contaminants like acid and heavy metals.
"Brook trout are pretty magical creatures and we’re all pretty lucky to live in this state where we can basically get on a bicycle and go someplace where we can catch a brook trout," said Bennett. "Fishing brings in about $370 million a year to the state of Maine."
Bennett re-emphasized his organization’s recommendation that the state require mining companies to complete all wastewater treatment within 10 years of closure, not 30 years. He warned policymakers against a policy of "perpetual treatment."
"The farther out you get, 30 years becomes the same as 200 years or 1,000 years," said Bennett.
Bennett said that mining companies must be required to pay all their financial assurances for cleanup costs to the state up front, rather than only requiring the companies to pay half, as is proposed in the new rules.
"Mining companies can go bankrupt very quickly if metal prices crash," said Bennett. "If they’ve dug a big hole in the ground exposing acid-generating material and they’re bankrupt, that’s when the state has to step in."
Additionally, environmental organizations opposing the new mining rules want protections from fugitive emissions from the dust produced and clearer definitions for allowable contamination within the mining site.
As for the jobs created by a mining operation at Bald Mountain, J.D. Irving has asserted that the entire project will create around 700 "direct or indirect jobs." However, Boliden, a Swedish mining company that had mining rights to Bald Mountain in the 1990s, estimated that the number of jobs created would be anywhere from 80 to 130. Meanwhile, critics in the environmental community say that although mining jobs can be well paying, workers are often brought in from out of state and the jobs are temporary. Bennett said mining communities are noted for high unemployment, slow rates of growth, high poverty rates, stagnant or declining population, and low property values due to the destruction to the landscape from mining activity.
"There will be impacts to the environment," said Bennett. "No matter how good these rules are, there are going to be impacts to the environment and they are going to be significant. There isn’t any possibility of doing mining with absolutely no harm to the environment."