AUGUSTA, Maine — Controversial new mining regulations unveiled Friday by the Department of Environmental Protection are already garnering criticism from environmental groups who say they weaken existing regulations designed to protect groundwater.
The new regulations, which have been the subject of controversy since the Legislature called for them last year, are on the verge of entering a new phase of public discussion.
The rules are the result of LD 1853, which was enacted in 2012 by the previous Legislature, then controlled by Republicans, and Gov. Paul LePage. While proponents of the bill say it will spur economic development where Maine needs it most, opponents say it would gut provisions in current law that protect Maine’s groundwater and ensure that mining companies have the financial resources to follow a project through — including any necessary environmental cleanups — whether a mine is successful or not.
The DEP has been working on the proposed rules for months and published them on its website Friday. The 78-page document calls on the DEP to create new metallic mineral mining laws by January 2014. Metallic mineral mining focuses on valuable metals such as gold, silver, copper and zinc.
Nick Bennett, a scientist and watersheds project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his organization generally opposes large-scale mining for numerous reasons but takes serious exception to the rules proposed by the DEP. Chief among Bennett’s concerns is that the rules soften protections related to groundwater pollution by redefining the scope of monitoring that is required, especially on a mine operator’s own property.
“The old rules had very strict protections for groundwater,” said Bennett. “These rules allow an unlimited amount of groundwater contamination in mining areas. … If you allow a lot of groundwater to be contaminated, stopping the spread of it becomes nearly impossible.”
Bennett said large-scale metallic mineral mining is dangerous to the environment because the process releases toxic metals and other substances that combine with water to create sulfuric acid.
“My biggest concern is that the way they’ve rewritten these rules will allow large-scale contamination of the groundwater on the mining site, which will essentially lead to groundwater in other areas,” said Bennett. “The old rules said they were not allowed to contaminate the groundwater at all.”
This type of mining has not happened in Maine for decades, but the issue was revived recently by Canadian timber company J.D. Irving Ltd., which has shown interest in mining a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. Irving says the venture could create up to 700 jobs, generating more than $100 million in state and local taxes over the course of the project.
Environmental groups and others expressed opposition to the DEP’s new rules long before they were written. In June, the Senate defeated LD 1302, An Act to Amend the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act to Protect Water Quality, which called for more stringent water quality protections, among other provisions.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was one of the senators who led the effort against the bill. He said during the committee process that he wanted to wait for the DEP to finish writing its rules later this year before committing one way or the other.
“Unless I am satisfied with the rules the Department and Board of Environmental Protection put before this Legislature next year, I will be right here alongside the environmental community fighting to fix any problems and any concerns,” said Jackson, according to his written testimony. “I won’t take a backseat to anyone, from any group, when it comes to protecting Aroostook County’s environment. But I also won’t sit back and see a law that might mean hundreds of jobs undermined before we’ve had a chance to see if the law could work.“
Mining has potential in other areas of Maine as well. Besides Bald Mountain, significant ore deposits are located in Penobscot, Washington, Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford and Hancock counties.
The proposed rules are subject to review by the citizen-led Board of Environmental Protection, which has yet to schedule public hearings on the issue.
Jessamine Logan, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department would have no comment on the rules as they go through the hearing process, but provided a written statement.
“Although these are working draft rules, we believe that they achieve the goals within the [Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act] and balance economic interests with strict protections of our natural resources,” reads the statement.