AUGUSTA, Maine — A leading environmental group blasted the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday for the department’s choice of a Michigan firm to help Maine rewrite its mineral mining regulations.
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a letter to DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho on Thursday that the North Jackson Company of Michigan is too entrenched in the mining industry to provide guidance that balances commercial interests with environmental ones.
However, the DEP said the new rules would be developed carefully and with opportunities for input from legislators and the public and that the process will be led by the DEP, not the North Jackson Company. DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren reacted to the NRCM’s letter with dismay.
“We knew that even as we were going above and beyond to be transparent and consistent in following the will of the Legislature that we would be subject to constant criticisms,” said DePoy-Warren. “We welcome constructive, not obstructive, participation in this process. It’s offensive to have these criticisms thrown at us.”
The North Jackson Company, according to its website, works as a consultant for government and industry, helping clients with environmental assessments, securing permits and other services. The DEP announced last month that it had signed a $175,000 contract with the company to oversee the first major rewrite of Maine’s mining regulations in two decades. The contract followed legislation passed earlier this year that transferred mining permit responsibilities from the Land Use Regulatory Commission to the DEP and called for an overhaul of mining rules.
Among Didisheim’s criticisms of the North Jackson Company was its past experience working for mining companies in the United States and beyond to help them navigate permitting for new and expanded mining operations.
“DEP has apparently decided to allow a mining industry consultant to play a lead role in writing the rules for metal mining in Maine, without meaningful public input during the drafting phase and no clear indication of the role to be played by technical experts at Maine’s natural resource agencies,” wrote Didisheim in his letter to Aho. “The process you are pursuing gives too much influence to mining interests and not enough opportunity for Maine people to participate in drafting rules that could result in widespread water pollution and massive financial clean-up costs for the state if the public’s interests are not protected.”
The North Jackson Company, which submitted the sole bid to the DEP, will work with Maine-based S.W. Cole Engineering, which has offices in Augusta, Bangor, Caribou and Gray, on the project. DePoy-Warren said that though the North Jackson Company was the only bidder for the contract, it meets all the DEP’s qualifications. Furthermore, she said its hiring of S.W. Cole Engineering, whose reputation DePoy-Warren lauded, will ensure that local concerns are well represented. She said the DEP’s efforts at transparency have included circulating press releases and the development of a web page specifically dedicated to the metal mining rulemaking process. She said both of those measures go further than what the department typically does during rulemaking.
“We know that the public wants to see this done right. We want this done right,” she said. “We at the department deal with these legacy sites that weren’t done right before the department was in existence. We’ve seen the effects of mining not done right in Maine so we’re not going to let that happen again. We’ve promised the Legislature that we would go above and beyond to be transparent.”
One example of mining gone wrong in Maine, according to DePoy-Warren, is the Callahan Mine in the town of Brooksville on the Blue Hill Peninsula. That mine, which operated in the 1960s and 1970s, is now a federal superfund site and the subject of a massive cleanup effort.
Didisheim argued in his letter to Aho that DEP officials, along with the Maine Geological Survey and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, should take a lead role in rewriting the mining regulations, not the North Jackson Company.
DePoy-Warren said the department is in fact taking the lead and that any rules or laws that result in the process will be subject to review by the state’s citizen-led Board of Environmental Protection and the Legislature.
Didisheim also challenged assertions by the DEP in a mid-November press release that the company led a rewrite of Michigan’s mining rules in 2004 and 2005 — information that was included in a Nov. 20 article in the Bangor Daily News. He said the Natural Resources Council of Maine can find no evidence that the company was involved to the extent represented by the DEP.
“We believe that the DEP director of communications, at a minimum, should issue a retraction to the media stating that the Department’s news release was inaccurate,” wrote Didisheim. “But we are also concerned that the department may actually believe that the North Jackson Company has experience that it does not have.”
DePoy-Warren called that statement “inaccurate” and said the North Jackson Company was involved in Michigan’s rewrite, which is one of the reasons the DEP has contracted with them.
Maine’s current mining rules took effect in 1991 and the state has received no applications for mining permits since then. However, J.D. Irving Limited, which owns property on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, has said a mining operation there focused on gold, silver and copper could create hundreds of jobs and badly needed revenue for state government. Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who lost his bid for re-election last month, sponsored the mining-related legislation. Martin’s bill stirred up controversy in The County among supporters and opponents of the concept.
According to the law, the Legislature is required to act on a new set of metal mining rules by July of 2014.