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Mining Bald Mountain for precious metals not worth the environmental risk, Portland speaker says

Courtesy of NRCM
Courtesy of NRCM
Ramsey Hart of MiningWatch Canada was tapped to deliver the keynote address at the Natural Resources Council of Maine annual meeting Thursday night, Sept. 27, 2012, in Portland.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A Canadian environmentalist and mining expert said Thursday there’s almost no way Bald Mountain can be mined without polluting nearby water, potentially for thousands of years.

Ramsey Hart of MiningWatch Canada was tapped as the keynote speaker for the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s annual meeting Thursday night in Portland. In an interview beforehand with the Bangor Daily News, Hart and NRCM scientist Nick Bennett decried as dangerous a new state law aimed at loosening up a regulatory environment that has essentially stonewalled metallic mineral mining in Maine for more than two decades.

In response, the chairman of the state Legislature’s natural resources committee argued that the metallic mining law was carefully written to protect the environment — a goal state Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said can be accomplished without suppressing business interests.

“Before us is the possibility of revitalizing an industry that dates back to the 1800s, an industry that could potentially create hundreds of jobs in a county that desperately needs jobs, pumping millions of sorely needed dollars into our state’s economy,” Saviello said in a Thursday statement, in part. “This can be done with critical environmental protections in place.”

Hanging in the balance are as many as 700 jobs, creating an estimated $600 million in payroll and $120 million in state and local taxes over the life of the project. That’s what Canadian timber company J.D. Irving Ltd., which requested the new law, claims it will create if it moves forward with a 500-acre mining site centered on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

Also hanging in the balance, Hart argued, is the health of the area groundwater as well as the Fish River chain of lakes, the last spot in Maine where brook trout are unencumbered by invasive species such as smallmouth bass.

Hart said the explosives used to blast open Bald Mountain for mining would release the sulfide entombed in the rock, which would be carried into area water bodies as sulfuric acid by rainwater and runoff. The toxins also would be injected into the groundwater by the process.

Saviello said the new law considers and protects water quality.

“The metallic mining law sets forth the strongest of protections and continues to uphold our state’s strict environmental laws,” the Wilton Republican said. “Before a permit to develop a mine can be issued, an applicant must demonstrate that ‘the mining operations will not unreasonably adversely affect existing uses, air quality, water quality or other natural resources.’”

Saviello, who also is chairman of the Legislature’s Regulatory Fairness and Reform Committee, said the law states that any discharges to groundwater outside the mining area must meet clean drinking water standards — or be as clean as the water is today — and that any contamination of surface water would be prohibited.

He also said the mining company would be required to monitor area water quality for at least 30 years after mining ceased.

But Bennett said there’s too much wiggle room in the law, which he notes seems to allow groundwater contamination within the “mining area,” but doesn’t define what that is.

With Department of Environmental Protection consultants slated to draft the exact rules needed to implement the new law, Bennett said too much of the legislation is open to interpretation.

“They didn’t say how far away you’re allowed to pollute, so it’s not clear if you’re allowed to pollute half a mile away, or a quarter-mile away,” Bennett said. “The more groundwater you allow to be polluted, the less likely you will be able to control that polluted groundwater from spreading. If the DEP allows [groundwater] 50 feet away to be polluted, that may already be too much. It may be impossible to control at that point.”

Hart added that keeping mining companies on the hook for water testing for an additional 30 years may not be enough, either.

“Unlike other industrial facilities, when you stop mining, the problems don’t stop at a sulfide mining site,” he said. “These mine wastes will continue to generate acid mine drainage, or risk generating it, for hundreds if not thousands of years.”

Bennett pointed to the case of the Callahan Mine in Brooksville, which was mined from 1968 until 1972, and has cost Maine taxpayers $23 million thus far in environmental remediation work.

“The largest part of the cleanup hasn’t been completed yet, and it’s 40 years later,” Bennett said.

“Ramsey was telling us that there are Roman mines that are still leaking acid, and obviously those were smaller mines than what we’re talking about here [at Bald Mountain].”

But bringing up cases like the Callahan Mine when discussing modern mining operations is unfair, Saviello said.

“Of course, mines that were constructed and operated before current environmental laws and regulations have a mixed environmental record,” he stated. “But today’s operations are a far cry from facilities first opened in the 1800s and operated up until the 1980s such as the Callahan mine. Rigorous environmental laws, requirements for reclamation and closure planning and advanced water treatment technology combine to offer the opportunity to mine in a safe, responsible manner.

“In addition to the requirement that an applicant prepare an operations, closure and environmental protection plan before the mine is permitted, the applicant must provide financial assurance that the mine will be reclaimed and closed without spending taxpayer money,” Saviello said.

Bennett said he’s still looking for an example of a mine closed in the United States that did not leave behind environmental damage or cost taxpayers money.

He said a recent report compared pollution estimates prepared by mining companies beforehand with the actual amount of water contamination found once an operation was constructed.

“About 75 percent violated water quality standards,” he said. “The mining industry has a very strong history of predicting things they can’t do. Maybe they’re saying those things in good faith, and they really believe they’ll be able to adequately treat all of the water coming away from the site. But this shows they usually can’t.”

James Irving, president of J.D. Irving Ltd., told a Fort Kent crowd in May he would not mine at Bald Mountain at the expense of the environment.

Hart said he worried that Irving might become unrealistically hopeful about his chances of isolating his mining operation from the environment once he sees how much gold, silver and copper is in the mountain.

“It’s plausible that after looking at this some more, that Irving would decide that it’s too risky, but there are a lot of folks in the industry who make claims and then become overly optimistic,” Hart said.

“The first thought that probably comes to mind [for mining company executives] is, ‘Gosh, look how much money can be made,’” he said. “Then, maybe, ‘Are there environmental risks?’ Then, ‘Can we mitigate those risks?’ and then, ‘How can we convince people that the benefits are worth the risks?’”

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously said the project may create an estimated $600 million in annual payroll and $120 million in state and local taxes. The $600 million payroll and $120 million in taxes are estimated over the life of the project.

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