AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposed bill in the Legislature to change the state’s mining laws generated significant public comment Friday, with support for the legislation mainly coming from Aroostook County business and economic development leaders and residents.
Members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee spent close to five hours hearing testimony on LD 1853, An Act To Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Mining in Maine. The hearing brought out a good mix of proponents and opponents.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, submitted the bill in early March, saying 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.
Under the bill the state Department of Environmental Protection would be in charge of permitting and regulating such operations.
Martin said that 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.
Patricia Aho, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said her agency supported the bill and would be proposing a metallic mining fund using existing money to hire experts for the rulemaking process. The required rulemaking by the DEP likely would not begin until at least January 2014.
Town officials from County communities such as Ashland, Portage and Caribou testified in support of the bill as long as it was environmentally sound because it would lead to job creation. Rep. Ken Theriault, D-Madawaska, did the same.
Some people, however, said they didn’t believe the 300 jobs figure and pointed out instances where such jobs were promised in other states but did not materialize. They also thought that the bill was moving through the Legislature too quickly.
Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, was opposed to the bill. He said that his district includes the location of the Kerramerican Mine in Blue Hill and the Callahan Mine in Brooksville. Minerals such as zinc and copper were mined in each. He said that surface water was contaminated at Kerramerican and that $10 million was spent to install a geosynthetic cover system and initiate a five-year monitoring program that is under way.
Chapman added that the Callahan Mine is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site. The total cleanup cost is estimated to be $23 million. He acknowledged that times have changed and that the mining operations in his district would not be allowed under today’s regulations. Chapman told the committee that he did not believe that mine operators at the time intended to contaminate the groundwater, contaminate the surface waters or render the areas unacceptable for recreation or residential use, but they did.
“Forty years from now, how will the situation be any different?” he asked. “Why do we think that the rules we put in place today will be adequate for the needs of society 40 years from now?”
Environmental and conservation groups maintained their stance that lakes, streams and groundwater could be poisoned near Bald Mountain if there is not adequate public scrutiny or debate.
Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy in Maine, said that his organization was opposed to the bill. He said the science-based international nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation of lands and waters would support mining in appropriate places and if the right processes are taken to ensure effective permitting with the right safeguards. The group suggested a number of amendments around water quality and inspection and maintenance.
Several speakers said that they did not want to leave their children or grandchildren another superfund site to cleanup.
Representatives from J.D Irving were in The County last week educating residents about the bill. They said that the company is committed to pursuing the project and could strike a balance between completing the project and keeping the environment pristine.
The committee, which has been gathering information and testimony on the bill for about two weeks, will begin weighing a decision on Monday.