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AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is preparing to hire an outside firm involved in the mining industry to help the agency carry out the first major rewrite of the state’s metallic mining regulations in two decades.
The contract with an outside firm is an outgrowth of legislation passed earlier this year that calls for a major update to the state’s mining rules and transfers all mining permit responsibilities to the DEP from the state’s former Land Use Regulation Commission. Legislative debate on the bill focused on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, where landowner J.D. Irving has said opening a mining operation to recover the mountain’s gold, silver and copper deposits could create 700 jobs.
The DEP doesn’t typically go to outside firms for major help in writing regulations, but lawmakers directed the agency to do so in this case. Legislators set aside $500,000 to cover rulemaking costs, transferring $250,000 each from separate state funds meant to pay for cleanups of oil spills and hazardous waste sites.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who sponsored the legislation, said the funds were intended to help the DEP hire “the best experts in the world to help them write the rules.”
A request for proposals the department issued during the summer asked for a firm with “recent and successful experience with metallic mining operations” to play a major role in rewriting state rules that set permit requirements for metallic mining. Those requirements will address environmental considerations throughout the mining process, along with restoration of the land after mining operations end, according to the request for proposals.
“The department didn’t have the in-house expertise that we needed to develop these rules in a way that was protective [of the environment] and a way that was most understanding of mining practices and processes,” said DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren.
Bids were due by late August, and DePoy-Warren said the department is finalizing negotiations with a qualified contractor. She didn’t say how many bids the department has received.
“We want to make sure we have those who are experts in this industry working with us to develop these rules on a practice that isn’t very common in Maine,” she said. “There’s not a lot of expertise in the department for this, and this process acknowledges it and seeks that expertise.”
Environmental advocates who opposed the mining measure earlier this year said the legislation didn’t receive the consideration it needed before both chambers passed it and Gov. Paul LePage signed it into law. They remain concerned that the rulemaking process could result in regulations that favor the mining industry and do away with critical environmental protections.
Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he’s concerned about the prospect of a firm with mining industry clients winning the rulemaking contract and playing a significant role in writing the state’s mining regulations.
“What I fear that will lead to is rules written for the mining industry and not rules to protect Maine’s environment,” he said.
The Natural Resources Council recently had a Canadian environmentalist at its annual meeting who said it’s unlikely Bald Mountain, located northwest of Ashland and Portage, can be mined without contaminating nearby groundwater.
Bennett said a number of the DEP staff members involved in writing the state’s current mining regulations, which took effect in 1991, still work at the department and have the expertise to update the rules.
But the agency has undergone staff cuts since the early 1990s, so it makes sense to seek outside help in rewriting state mining rules, said Sean Mahoney, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation Maine.
What’s critical, Mahoney said, is that the state end up with rules that require companies hoping to mine in Maine to prove they have the financial backing needed to clean up the site when mining operations are complete.
“Mines both in Maine and all over the country have more often than not resulted in environmental liabilities that require public funds, either state or federal, to clean up,” he said.
The firm that ends up with the rulemaking contract will report to DEP staff, and the mining rules will take effect only after going through the state’s formal rulemaking process, which involves public hearings, the state Board of Environmental Protection and approval by the Legislature, said DePoy-Warren.
“Everyone will have an opportunity to participate and to see firsthand that it is done right,” she said.
While Maine has a long mining history that dates back more than two centuries, there’s been virtually no metallic mining activity — mining for certain precious metals — in the state since the 1980s. The cleanup of one of those sites, Callahan Mine in Brooksville, is ongoing with the help of federal superfund money decades after mining activity there had stopped.
Since the state’s current mining regulations that established standards for accepting mining permit applications took effect in 1991, the state has received no permit applications.
During debate before the Legislature this spring, advocates for rewriting the state’s mining regulations argued that the rules stymied the development of a mining industry in Maine and that they were in need of an update.
“Things have changed so much in 20 years,” Martin said. “There are some things we know now that we would have written differently had we known what we know now, especially on environmental issues.”
But Mahoney doubts a new set of regulations will spur major mining activity.
“What drove that wasn’t the regulations, it was the markets,” he said. “It is not something where, with new regulations, you’re going to have this industry booming in the state of Maine.”