by Jody Spear
It pays to take notes at public hearings held by state regulatory boards. Scribes who stayed for the entire day were able to fill volumes on Oct. 17, when dozens of people came before the Board of Environmental Protection to register concerns about new rules proposed expressly to weaken environmental standards for mining.
A central focus of testimony from many of those opposed to the draft rules was impropriety on the part of regulators charged with protecting natural resources. The handful of industry supporters arguing for even weaker regulations were outnumbered five to one by people who expressed outrage at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection suppressing information that would have made a difference before changes to the state’s mining law were enacted last year.
Had the truth been made public — about events involving two mining companies that proposed extracting ores from Bald Mountain before the firm J.D. Irving came on the scene and pushed LD 1853 through — there would have been a particularly compelling argument to be made against any weakening of the law then in place. These two companies, Boliden and Black Hawk, withdrew when studies they commissioned showed that mining Bald Mountain would be too damaging to the environment and too costly to clean up.
The DEP and Irving didn’t want open discussion of that history. Their purpose last year was to remove the roadblocks that caused the two companies to drop their plans, and the present draft rules accomplish that by eviscerating regulations for water protection and requirements for financial responsibility.
Many people at the hearing cited the Callahan Mine as a cautionary example about mining companies that do their dirty work under lax regulatory conditions and leave town rather than pay for cleaning up the devastation they cause.
I am a close neighbor to that Superfund site in Harborside and have attended many briefings by EPA and Maine DEP engineers who are working with scientists from Dartmouth College to assess the damage and come up with a semblance of a solution. Alarmingly, levels of toxic metals in fish in the estuary there are high enough to affect larger fish and birds, increasing potential for harm to wildlife and humans beyond the site. Researchers are still trying to identify sources of heavy-metal contamination that continues to seep out 40 years after the mine closure — whether from rock piles or sediment is unclear.
Faced with an even greater challenge (it being well understood that mining deposits at Bald Mountain would cause significantly more destruction than resulted in the Callahan site), the authors of a 1990 study for Boliden, Steffen Robertson and Kirsten Inc. consultants, recommended seeking lower water-quality standards, so their client could discharge more heavily polluted waste water.
This is precisely what the proposed rules do: They allow, for example, pollution of groundwater within the mining area, thus equivocating about the requirement that tailings impoundments have a protective liner.
Two scientists, Susan Davies and Catherine Roberts (formerly with Maine DEP and EPA, respectively), warned the board that groundwater contamination in the mining area, as defined in the draft rules, threatens groundwater outside as well as surface water — lakes, streams, drinking-water wells — and that weakening the regulations jeopardizes the state’s ability to hold the mining industry responsible.
Countering this principled approach was Larry Fitzgerald, a geologist who manages two Superfund sites in New England, one for EPA, who considers acid mine drainage manageable by experts. (Water is already affected by oxidizing metals, he said — a reference to the hundreds of boreholes drilled into Bald Mountain in exploratory stages.)
These are instructive differences that guide us to determine which of the experts are to be trusted — those whose purpose is to maintain environmental integrity or those bent on resource extraction at any cost.
In light of the improprieties on the part of Maine DEP, and considering the devastating damage that would be allowed under the permissive rules proposed by the agency, I contend that the mining law enacted in 2012 must be repealed. Failing that, the rules must contain provisions that some sites — sites like Bald Mountain — should never be mined. Comments are being accepted by the Board of Environmental Protection until Monday, Oct. 28. To submit them, email email@example.com.
Jody Spear is an editor and writer living in Harborside in Hancock County.