Legislative panel solidifies language on mining bill, public comment sought Friday

Posted March 26, 2012, at 8:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With language in a proposed bill to change the state’s mining laws solidified, legislators have scheduled a public comment session Friday to allow people to ask questions and suggest possible revisions.

Members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee spent most of last week and two hours Monday scrutinizing LD 1853, An Act To Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Mining in Maine.

Most of Monday’s work centered on revising language in the bill to make it more legally sound. Citizens can see and speak about the changes during the public comment session beginning 1 p.m. Friday in Room 216 of the Cross State Office Building.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, submitted the bill two weeks ago. He said he was prompted to introduce it because of the increasing price of minerals and the potential for mining gold, silver, copper and zinc on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

Bald Mountain is located northwest of Ashland and Portage. J.D. Irving owns the land with Prentiss & Carlisle.

Martin said the bill would create sensible, environmentally sound mining regulations that would encourage responsible mining activities and 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.

During Monday’s meeting Martin addressed the committee to dispel rumors that he has a conflict of interest because he is negotiating a $250,000 bankruptcy debt with an Irving family oil business. Martin is co-owner of Bald Eagle convenience store in his hometown of Eagle Lake, which Irving Oil Marketing says in bankruptcy filings is $250,000 in debt for gas and diesel deliveries and related charges. Mary Keith, a spokesman for J.D. Irving, said Bald Mountain is co-owned by “Irving Woodlands LLC and Aroostook Timberlands LLC” which “are separately owned and controlled by J.D. Irving Ltd. and none of these companies has any legal relationship or affiliation to Irving Oil.”

Martin reiterated that stance and also pushed back against e nvironmental and conservation groups who have said that lakes, streams and groundwater could be poisoned near Bald Mountain if there is not adequate public scrutiny or debate.

Martin told the committee he owns Moose Point Camps, a series of sporting camps which he said are 5½ miles from Bald Mountain. He said that he would never want to do any harm to the environment, especially in an area where he fishes and where environmental problems could hurt his sporting camp business.

Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell said that from what he has gathered, people in The County are for the Bald Mountain project and people in southern Maine are against it.

“People in northern Maine are in favor of jobs,” he said.

The committee members talked briefly about why the bill was submitted so late in the session, and Martin said he did it because he knew the committee had time to tackle the legislation.

Martin pointed out that the population of Aroostook County was once 102,000 and is now down to 70,000.

“It is unfortunate that we are educating our young people and there are not enough jobs,” he said. “We are educating them and they are going to Portland.”

“When I look at the potential for 300 jobs, I can’t turn my back on it,” he continued.

If the measure passes, Irving officials said the required rulemaking by the DEP likely would not begin until at least January 2014.

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