Report claims DEP hid environmental effects of Bald Mountain mining

Posted Oct. 10, 2013, at 10:28 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 10, 2013, at 2:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine —The Natural Resources Council of Maine on Thursday released a report alleging that Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection did not provide Maine lawmakers or the public with its information that indicates an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County is likely to pollute rivers, lakes and streams with sulfuric acid runoff and arsenic pollution.

The report, “Bald Mountain Mining Risks: Hidden from the Public,” also claims that Canada-based J.D. Irving Ltd. is inflating projections that its proposed mine at Bald Mountain would create up to 700 direct and indirect jobs.

A spokesman for Irving did not immediately return a call seeking comment about the allegations. Heather Parent, policy director for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said Thursday that much of the claims in the document were false, and the department had done all that it could to involve lawmakers, inform the public and to take steps to protect the environment.

The environmental advocacy group’s report was released one week before the state Board of Environmental Protection is scheduled to hold a public hearing on proposed draft rules developed as a result of the legislation prompted by Irving. The hearing is set for 9 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at the Augusta Civic Center.

Last year, the Legislature passed LD 1853, a bill to change the state’s mining laws. It opened up mining possibilities on a 500-acre site of Irving-owned land on Bald Mountain, which is northwest of Ashland and Portage. Last month, the DEP unveiled new draft mining regulations that the agency says are designed to protect the environment while allowing for economic gains.

Pete Didisheim, senior advocacy director for the NRCM, said Wednesday evening that his organization’s report draws from consultant studies done for two mining companies that in the 1980s and 1990s pursued DEP permits for open-pit mining at Bald Mountain. These documents, secured through Freedom of Access Act requests, include multiple warnings that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain would be very risky. Didisheim said that both mining companies, Boliden Resources and Black Hawk Mining Inc., ultimately dropped their plans for that site.

He also said that technical experts have repeatedly concluded that an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain would be challenging and costly because of high concentrations of sulfur and arsenic that would leach into the environment. The report stated that consultants have indicated ore and surrounding rock on Bald Mountain have particularly high acid-generating potential, and some of the rock would start releasing acid very quickly with exposure to air and water.

“There aren’t any legislators sitting now on the environment committee who were seated when Bald Mountain was being explored for mining in the 1990s,” he said. “So the Legislature is not aware of the risks at Bald Mountain. This information should have been brought forward by DEP and put in the hands of lawmakers and distributed to the public, but it wasn’t.”

Didisheim also said that the LePage administration has not allowed DEP’s technical or professional staff to testify before the Legislature about the intricacies of mining, only higher administration officials such as the commissioner of DEP or related colleagues.

“That isn’t always helpful,” he said.

Parent countered Thursday that this was completely false, as Mark Stebbins, mining coordinator for the DEP, had attended two work sessions with legislators, and other technical staff had been made available to attend hearings and answer questions for lawmakers.

“We have worked hard as a staff to make [the draft mining regulations] as environmentally protective as possible,” she said. “We have not ever withheld information. We have not ever withheld documents. We have always talked about mining in general in Maine, not just Bald Mountain, because we have to focus on the entire state.”

She also pointed out that while the report talks of potential water quality impact around mining sites, regulations do not allow sites to contaminate the groundwater at all.

The NRCM also identified documents in DEP files that the organization says raise questions about job estimates made by Irving about the Bald Mountain mine project. Boliden estimated about 80 to 130 jobs for a full-scale open-pit mine at the site, and Black Hawk estimated 75 jobs for a smaller mine. Irving has said that the mine would generate up to 700 direct and indirect jobs.

“We’ve made four or five requests and asked for the study or other paperwork that shows where they got that figure,” Didisheim said Wednesday. “[Irving has] refused to show us. They have never shared more than a sentence about that 700 jobs figure. We don’t believe it is credible. At the same time, a mine is not something that is operating full-time. Usually, it runs for five or six years, and then it shuts down; the workers move on to another mine, and then the residents are left to clean up the mess.”

In the Legislature, Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said in a statement Thursday afternoon that he found the report “troubling” and felt it signified the LePage administration “may be putting our economy at risk for far fewer jobs than the project claims it will generate.”

He added that the report emphasized the need to ensure that mining only happens under the highest possible standards.

The full report and background materials are available at www.nrcm.org.

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