By Anthony Brino, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News news story
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection must revise portions of a controversial third proposal for metal mining regulations in Maine after hearing from the public and the Board of Environmental Protection, but some critics fear the agency will ignore some major concerns.
The Board of Environmental Protection held a five-hour “deliberative session” Thursday to examine the DEP’s latest plan for regulating large-scale metal mining. A 2012 law replaced a stricter mining law and regulations adopted in 1991 and required the DEP to formulate rules for permitting mines, which haven’t operated in Maine since the 1970s.
Members of the Board of Environmental Protection used the session to discuss technical issues of the proposal and to learn more about the mining processes that might be used in Maine at sites such as Bald Mountain in the North Woods west of Portage. J.D. Irving Ltd.’s interest in mining gold, copper and other metals at Bald Mountain prompted the 2012 law, and it revived a decades-long debate about whether the state can coexist with a new extractive industry.
More than 400 public comments have been received on the proposal since it was introduced in August, with many urging the DEP to adopt stronger rules to protect water quality and the environment.
DEP staff said Thursday they wanted to consider incorporating several small changes and additions to the rules to bring back to the Board of Environmental Protection, including requiring a third-party monitor to track environmental compliance throughout the life of the mine.
Jim Boyle, an environmental consultant from Gorham who used to work as a forester in northern Maine, suggested that idea at a public hearing last month, arguing that it “would go a long way to establishing a level of trust with the public if this were all to happen.”
The DEP’s proposal, which would have to be approved by both the Board of Environmental Protection and the state Legislature, offers a system for a mining company to secure a permit by meeting a slew of requirements, including preventing contamination of groundwater and surface water.
“Mining is a tremendous consumer of water because that is how they separate the minerals,” Mark Stebbins, the DEP mining coordinator, said at Thursday’s meeting. “There’s a huge amount of waste rock.”
After metal-bearing rock is removed from the earth, it is crushed through multiple sizes and then taken through a floatation process to separate the metals through gravity. That produces mining slurry, which is often comprised of 30 percent soil and rock, and 70 percent water, according to Stebbins.
All of the rock in the mining areas will have to be tested to determine if it is acidic, which would factor into the entire waste plan and long-term financial assurances for mine cleanup, Stebbins said. Any acid-producing rock would have to be stored in protected, lined pits.
The proposed regulations also would mandate long-term water quality monitoring and require that a closed mine have passive, low-intensity water treatment systems in place after 10 years.
The Board of Environmental Protection will meet again on Thursday, Nov. 3, to hear further revisions from the DEP.
Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the 2012 mining law, said after Thursday’s session that he hopes the DEP will consider other ideas suggested in the public comments.
Bennett said the proposal will still allow wet waste tailings ponds and, while it requires that wet waste be converted into dry waste before the mine is closed, the package does not address how that should be done.
He also is concerned that the provisions requiring a company to provide financial assurance for cleanup costs don’t include a “worst-case scenario” of a potential tailings dam breach polluting a watershed.
“Bald Mountain would produce 30 million tons of waste rock that you have to keep covered with water to prevent it from generating lots of acid,” Bennett said.