Maine House passes bill to protect taxpayers from paying mine cleanup costs

Posted June 05, 2013, at 9:49 p.m.
Last modified June 06, 2013, at 9:32 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House on Wednesday afternoon approved a bill that officials said would help protect water from pollution caused by mineral mining while also protecting taxpayers from footing the bill for mine cleanup costs.

LD 1302, An Act to Amend the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act To Protect Water Quality, was approved by a 91-49 vote. It was introduced by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators, including six House Republicans.

“I was happy to see it passed,” McCabe said Wednesday afternoon. “It should move on to the Senate later in the week. I am not sure how the bill will do there, but I would like to think that the bipartisan support that it received in the House is a good sign.”

The majority report on LD 1302 amends the mining law enacted during the final days of the 2012 legislative session, spurred by Canada-based Irving Corp.’s potential interest in pursuing a 600-acre open-pit copper and zinc mine on Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain.

An attempt to reach Irving for comment on the bill was unsuccessful.

Maine has not had an operating metal mine since 1972, when the Callahan Mine in Brooklin was closed. Maine and U.S. taxpayers are still paying cleanup costs for the Callahan Mine today, 40 years since the mine closed, and total cleanup costs are estimated to reach $23 million. Maine taxpayers are stuck with 10 percent of the total cleanup costs.

LD 1302 incorporates provisions from policies adopted in other states, including Michigan and New Mexico, in an attempt to ensure that new mines use best industry practices.

Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Wednesday evening that there are a number of mineral deposits across the state that could be the site of open pit mines. He said that he believes the new bill does more to protect the environment and he hopes the bipartisan support in the House also will be found in the Senate.

During floor debate on Wednesday, Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, said that a modern $470 million mine in Michigan, the Kennecott Eagle Mine, which will begin operations this year, will operate in accordance with permit conditions that are more strict than those contained in LD 1302, disproving claims that the bill would prevent mining in Maine.

The bill requires independent third-party verification of cleanup costs and that mines be designed to avoid wastewater cleanup extending decades into the future. Specifically, the bill requires that all postclosure water treatment be completed within 10 years of the mine’s closure.

Use of waste rock in road construction is prohibited and applicants for a mining permit will be required to analyze best practices in model mines in the U.S. and describe how those techniques will be applied in Maine. Mining applicants also will be required to provide information about the number and duration of jobs they will create and an estimate of how many of these jobs might be filled with people from the Maine workforce.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that he cannot support the bill as written. He said that he wants more assurance that Maine’s environment will be protected over time. He added that new rules for proposed mining will be written by the state Department of Environmental Protection in early 2014, so he will wait and make his voice heard then.

Significant mineral deposits that could be mined in the future also are located in Penobscot, Washington, Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford and Hancock counties. The ore deposits are found in sulfide rock formations, which can generate sulfuric acid runoff from a mining operation and harm rivers and streams.

McCabe said that LD 1302 would reduce the potential of toxic metals damaging Maine’s waters.

“This bill will help put necessary safeguards in place so that if mining happens in Maine, it is done responsibly and in a way that doesn’t cause massive environmental and financial problems for the state,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Mineral mining can create jobs for a short period of time, and environmental problems and cleanup costs that span generations. That’s why it’s so important for Maine to get the law right before any new mining begins.”

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