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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Representatives from J.D. Irving Ltd. were in Aroostook County Thursday and Friday speaking to town managers, economic development officials and others about the potential for mining at Bald Mountain.
Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for J.D. Irving Ltd., said that residents have been positive about the project as long as the mining poses no adverse effects to the environment.
“We had a lot of good questions last night,” said Hourihan, referring to a meeting on Thursday evening attended by members of groups such as the Northern Maine Development Commission, Aroostook Partnership for Progress and Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development. “People seem to be excited about the economic prospects.”
Approximately two weeks ago, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, submitted a bill to change the state’s mining laws. He 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.
Martin submitted LD 1853, An Act To Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Mining in Maine. The mountain is located northwest of Ashland and Portage.
Martin said the bill would create sensible, environmentally sound mining regulations that would encourage responsible mining activities and that would put the state Department of Environmental Protection in charge of permitting and regulating such operations.
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, he said.
The state’s mining laws and rules were updated in 1991 as a result of potential mineral deposits discovered at Bald Mountain.
Environmental and conservation groups, however, are accusing the company and some lawmakers of trying to push the proposed changes through without adequate public scrutiny or debate.
The result, opponents warn, could be poisoned lakes, streams and groundwater sources near Bald Mountain and other Maine places where gold, silver and other valuable metals are locked away in the bedrock.
On Friday, Hourihan was looking to allay concerns that the process was being rushed or that the mining process would be environmentally destructive.
He said if the bill passed it would create a consolidated permitting law known as the Maine Nonferrous Metal Mineral Mining Act and that the required rulemaking by the DEP likely would not begin until at least January 2014.
He said that the last of the work sessions on the legislation was expected to take place Monday. During hearings this week, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee members have clarified wording, made amendments and asked many questions about the legislation.
“The committee is doing a great job and asking a lot of questions,” he said.
Mary Keith, vice president of communications for J.D. Irving, said that the company is committed to pursuing the project, and she felt that the right balance could be achieved between completing the project and keeping the environment pristine.
Hourihan also said that there have been significant improvements in environmental control technology and best practices since 1991.
Members of NMDC and the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce spoke in support of the bill earlier this week in Augusta.
Hourihan acknowledged that there are obstacles. Maine has rigid and time-consuming mining laws and its permit approval standards are not clear, with duplicate reviews and permits needed from different agencies, which also must be renewed every five years. Drinking water standards apply beneath mining areas and variances aren’t available for many of the requirements, according to Irving officials.
At the same time, Hourihan spoke of some of the obstacles facing The County, including unemployment and population loss. He said that Irving would be looking to hire local people, just as they hire local loggers to work for the company.
“What we heard a lot last night was that people wanted their children to stay here or come back here,” he explained. “But they wanted them to be able to have good-paying jobs. Those kind of jobs are what we have in this project.”