Environmental groups fear the Michigan firm may overlook concerns of Maine residents.
by North Cairn, staff writer
The wrangling over mining in Maine has started anew with the state’s hiring of a consulting firm from Michigan to help modernize environmental rules for mining operations.
The Department of Environmental Protection will pay $175,000 of a $500,000 legislative appropriation to the North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich. — and the Maine-based subcontractor, S.W. Cole Engineering — for assistance in updating metallic-mineral mining rules.
North Jackson was the only bidder for the contract, although the contract details were downloaded three dozen times and the state’s search for proposals was “widely advertised,” said Samantha DePoy-Warren, director of communications for the DEP.
The state also sent notices to members of the National Mining Association and the Interstate Mining Contract, but no other firms submitted proposals, she said.
Environmental and conservation groups around Maine say they’re dismayed and surprised at the selection of the sole bidder for the job. They said mining regulation is critical to the state but the Legislature dealt with the issue in haste earlier this year, when it passed the law calling for the regulatory overhaul.
Pete Didisheim, senior director for advocacy with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his group sees the hiring of an out-of-state firm as “outsourcing” regulatory process.
DePoy-Warren said North Jackson was awarded the contract because it has experience with mineral mining regulation in Michigan.
Jym St.Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, a nonprofit conservation organization in Hallowell, said it was not entirely unexpected that the state would have to go beyond its borders to find help with mining issues and rules.
Nearly 30 years ago, he said, he was involved in “an exhaustive search” for help in establishing rules for a mining project proposed for Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. “It was virtually impossible” to find a firm “with mining expertise that was not a tool of the industry.”
Several environmental groups raised that concern Tuesday, because little is known about the Michigan firm.
“To what extent is this going to be a black-box product?” that excludes input from the public or organizations with a stake in the outcome of the rule-making, said Jeff Reardon, Maine brook trout project manager for Trout Unlimited in Hallowell.
“This is really, really serious stuff,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, a nonprofit environmental organization in Yarmouth. “I’m very concerned and skeptical, and I think other people should be, too.”
The fate of proposed mining projects — including one by Irving, the state’s largest landowner, to remove gold, silver and copper deposits from Bald Mountain — is on hold while the rule-making process unfolds.
The DEP has not received any formal requests for permits. Irving has said that a mining operation on Bald Mountain could create 700 jobs.
There are no active metallic mining operations in the state, DePoy-Warren said.
The value of an ounce of gold has risen above $1,700, and silver has reached $33. The potential value of Bald Mountain deposits has been estimated at several billion dollars.
But environmentalists warn against settling for short-term benefits without knowing the long-term costs of cleanup and remediation.
“A critical part of Maine’s identity is to protect the environment,” Didisheim said. The state has “pretty sizable (mineral) deposits … but it’s a messy business to get at them.”
Mining entails “literally blowing up (a) mountain,” followed by crushing and pulverizing of rock, he said. The waste rock from the process has sulfide deposits that may hold copper, zinc, silver or gold. But when exposed to air and water, sulfide deposits are transformed into sulfuric acid, which rain or other water can carry into rivers and streams.
Such contamination could be severe, widespread and long-lasting, Didisheim said.
The Legislature and the DEP agreed to contract out assistance with the regulation drafting to ensure that modernized rules are based on sound science, reflect the best current mining practices and processes, and provide the most environmental protection, said DePoy-Warren.
North Jackson has worked on permitting, including rules for mining operations and environmental regulations, said Daniel Wiitala, vice president and chief financial officer for North Jackson.
He said drawing on Michigan’s experience would be a good fit with Maine, because both are “water-rich states … with similar climates,” considerations that can affect mining plans significantly.
North Jackson has subcontracted with S.W. Cole Engineering to provide local expertise, but that firm does not yet have exact details on its involvement, because “the scope of the work has not been finalized” with North Jackson, said Cliff Lippitt, senior geologist with S.W. Cole.
North Jackson will work under DEP’s direction to produce “an initial draft” of new rules by February, Wiitala said.
Updated rules will go through an approval process that DEP officials say will offer several opportunities for public comment.