AUGUSTA, Maine — A near equal number of supporters and opponents spoke during a four-and-a-half-hour public hearing Wednesday on a bill to change the state’s mining laws.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he was prompted to introduce the bill by the increasing price of minerals and the potential for mining gold, silver, copper and zinc on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Many testifying Wednesday, however, said that the bill was submitted too late and without enough study behind it, and they cautioned members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee to do a lot more studying before they vote on the bill.
Martin submitted LD 1853, An Act To Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Mining in Maine, late last week. The measure seeks to update Maine’s mining extraction laws and its co-sponsors include Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
Martin said the bill would create sensible, environmentally sound mining regulations that would encourage responsible mining activities and that the state Department of Environmental Protection would be responsible for permitting and regulating such operations.
The measure was introduced specifically with Bald Mountain — located in Township 12 Range 8, northwest of Ashland and Portage — in mind, he said.
Martin told committee members Wednesday that the land is owned by J.D. Irving Limited and Prentiss and Carlisle, a company that provides forest resource management and timberland services.
Martin said that officials with Irving came to him with a proposal to reopen the mine and get a partner to explore it. He said that he was pressing forward with the bill so quickly because of the economy in Aroostook County.
According to Martin, recent reports indicate that mining development at Bald Mountain could create up to 300 direct, well-paying jobs and hundreds of indirect jobs. There also would be an excise tax on the minerals there, so the result would be more than $600 million in employment income and more than $120 million in state and local taxes.
Martin said he kept the environment in mind when drafting the bill so that streams, lakes, natural habitats and other resources around Bald Mountain would not be harmed.
The state’s mining laws and rules were updated in 1991 as a result of potential mineral deposits discovered at Bald Mountain.
Ben Townsend, an attorney in Augusta, has a degree in geology and worked at Bald Mountain when he was just out of college. He told the panel Wednesday that officials believed at the time there was $1 million worth of copper in the mountain. Townsend said he was against the bill because it was drafted in haste without the degree of study on environmental impact that was necessary.
“Give this significant review and don’t rush this for a single project,” he said.
Ivy Frignoca of the Conservation Law Foundation in Portland agreed. She said that her organization hadn’t had time to review the bill or prepare comment.
“This is something that should not be done in haste,” she said.
Nick Bennett, staff scientist and watersheds project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, also opposed it. He was concerned about risks to water and groundwater and also about zoning aspects.
Many of those in support of the bill were Aroostook County businesspeople, including Theresa Fowler, director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce.
She said that her organization supported the bill because it would lead to job creation, something the County badly needs. She also said that more jobs meant more people settling in The County, which has seen a massive population drop in the past 40 years.
Alain Ouellette, planning and development director for the Northern Maine Development Corp. in Caribou, also spoke in favor of the bill because it would lead to job creation.
Committee members requested a significant amount of material from the Department of Environmental Protection and other entities before they hold a work session on the bill sometime next week.