The rules that Maine has drafted will protect neither our environment nor our taxpayers.
by Nick Bennett, NRCM Staff Scientist and Watersheds Project Director
AUGUSTA — In his Nov. 6 Maine Voices column, Walter Anderson missed the mark on the mining issues facing Maine (“Maine should take lead in crafting modern practice for mineral mining,” Nov. 6).
Near the end of the 2012 legislative session, JD Irving advanced a bill that would have eliminated Maine’s mining regulations and opened up all of the unorganized territories for mining. Irving did this just to facilitate building an open pit mine at Bald Mountain, which the company owns.
Irving’s representatives repeatedly told lawmakers that they envisioned an open pit mine at Bald Mountain, and at a May 2, 2012, forum in Fort Kent, company President Jim Irving said that the mine would consist of a 100-acre open pit within a 500-acre mining site. The Bangor Daily News reported this in its May 3, 2012, edition. Irving has never mentioned an underground mine to my knowledge, and although underground mines are less likely to cause major environmental disasters than open pit mines, they can still cause serious pollution.
The consultant analyses that the Natural Resources Council of Maine made public in its report “Bald Mountain Mining Risks: Hidden from the Public” show that the Bald Mountain ore body is extremely dangerous. The rock in this ore body is very high in sulfur and will create large amounts of sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. This acid is deadly to fish and aquatic creatures. The Bald Mountain ore also has extremely high levels of arsenic. The sulfuric acid will leach out this arsenic and other toxic metals. It will not be easy to contain this toxic soup and treat it on site. John S. Cummings, the geologist who discovered the Bald Mountain deposit, even wrote a letter to a Maine lawmaker saying that Irving’s plan to pursue a large open pit there is a prescription for “a debacle.”
The Natural Resources Council has consistently stated that if metal mining happens in Maine, it needs to be done right. We have done research on many mines throughout the country. Even modern mines, such as the Beal Mountain and Zortman-Landusky mines in Montana and the Summitville mine in Colorado, have caused serious, costly, and persistent environmental damage.
The public is paying the cleanup costs at each of these sites because the mining companies declared bankruptcy. Maine people cannot afford to pay a similar price for mining disasters, so we need strong rules to prevent them from happening.
As written, DEP’s draft mining rules, which the Board of Environmental Protection is now considering, would not protect Maine’s environment or taxpayers. For example, the rules would allow widespread contamination of groundwater under mine sites that could be hundreds or thousands of acres in size. Such contamination is nearly impossible to collect and treat, which means it would likely spread to surface waters, harming the fish and other creatures that live there.
The draft rules would allow mines to continue to generate polluted water for 30 years after they close. Any mine using best practices should be able to clean up within 10 years after closure. A mining company that says it needs 30 years of post-closure wastewater treatment is admitting up front that it is going to make a big mess and that it will not be able to clean up in a reasonable amount of time.
The draft rules fail to require a mine operator to place the full amount of financial assurance into a secure trust up front. Instead, they allow companies to pay only half of their financial assurance up front. Financial assurance is the money the state can use to clean up a mine if a company goes bankrupt, as frequently happens when metal prices crash.
These and other flaws in the rules are likely to allow mines to create large-scale contamination that the public pays to clean up. The abuses of the mining industry that Mr. Anderson describes in the developing world, including the use of child labor, are not a reasonable justification for having weak mining rules in Maine. When mining companies can take advantage of weak regulations, they do, whether in the United States or the developing world.
That is why the council is working to make sure Maine has strong mining rules that protect our environment and taxpayers. Without them, Maine will become the latest addition to the “dismal mining legacy” that Mr. Anderson acknowledges.
— Special to the Press Herald
About the Author Nick Bennett is Staff Scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.