New mining law strikes balance between environmental, economic priorities

By Tom Saviello, Special to the BDN
Posted Oct. 23, 2013, at 12:42 p.m.

As a forester and retired environmental manager, I am keenly aware of the critical balance between Maine’s precious natural resources and economic development; and I have no doubt that a thriving economy can coexist with rigorous environmental protections.

In April 2012, LD 1853, An Act to Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Metallic Mining in Maine, was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor. In short, the new law seeks to simplify the environmental oversight and permitting processes for mining activity in Maine, which hadn’t been updated in more than two decades.

The public process on this piece of legislation was unprecedented. In addition to the informational briefing and public hearing, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee held nine work sessions, and throughout the process the committee continued to take testimony from interested parties.

Contrary to the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s recent allegations, nothing was “hidden” from lawmakers or the public. Water quality issues were discussed extensively in 2012 and again in 2013, as were the nature of the Bald Mountain deposit and the potential for acid rock drainage.

Bold advances in science and technology are redefining our perceptions and continue to drive our economy. Today’s mining operations are a far cry from facilities first opened in the 1800s and operated up until the 1980s, such as the Callahan mine. Rigorous environmental standards, requirements for reclamation and closure planning and advanced water treatment technology combine to offer the opportunity to mine in a safe, responsible manner.

Yet NRCM chooses to ignore advancements in water treatment and other mining technologies and instead erroneously concludes that a future mining operation at Bald Mountain would pose identical environmental threats as those noted in a report by a Canadian consulting firm.

Certainly treatment and other technical methods that were untested 23 years ago could be viable for a potential mine at Bald Mountain. One only needs to consider the many technological advances over the last two decades that did not exist in 1990 but are commonplace today such as GPS, hybrid cars and the iPhone to know this to be true.

NRCM references numerous statements made by J.S. Cummings, the geologist who discovered the Bald Mountain deposit. Cummings’ concerns, however, are based on the assumption that the Bald Mountain deposit will be mined through a large open pit.

But the current owners of the Bald Mountain deposit have not proposed an open pit mine. As a matter of fact, they have not proposed any mine. They have asked that Maine adopt clear regulatory standards for mining, so they are able to evaluate whether mining the site is feasible and, if so, what type of mine will meet the environmental and regulatory requirements.

The metallic mining law passed in 2012 sets forth strong protections and continues to uphold our state’s strict environmental laws. Before a permit to develop a mine can be issued, an applicant must demonstrate that “the mining operations will not unreasonably adversely affect existing uses, air quality, water quality or other natural resources.”

The law explicitly requires mining operations comply with existing water quality standards. And it directs an applicant to reasonably assure “that public and private water supplies are not affected by the mining operation.”

The law stipulates that:

1) Any discharge to groundwater beyond a mining area must meet drinking water standards or be as clean as the water that is there today; and

2) Surface water must not be contaminated directly or indirectly by mining operations.

Water quality must be monitored throughout mining operations, during suspension of mining operations and following closure of a mine.

These sections of the law safeguard our water, land and air from potential impacts that mining development and operations may bring, including what is referred to as acid mine drainage.

Furthermore, the law mandates that rules governing metallic mining be subject to an extensive review and approval process before they are finalized. The draft rules have been submitted to the Board of Environmental Protection, which comprises residents from across the state, for examination and approval. The rules will be further considered by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and then go to the full Legislature for approval.

We should be mindful that Americans consume a large part of the mined materials in the world, 7.1 billion tons of rocks and minerals last year, according to the Mineral Information Institute. Unlike many countries around the world that mine the products we use every day here in Maine, we have the ability and foresight to enact tough laws that protect our natural resources. And in our state we have a process that – from start to finish – is deliberative and thorough.

Before us is the possibility of revitalizing an industry that dates back to the 1800s, an industry that could potentially create hundreds of jobs in a county that desperately needs jobs, pumping millions of sorely needed dollars into our state’s economy. Let’s give the process a chance to work.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, serves on the Maine Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/10/23/opinion/new-mining-law-strikes-balance-between-environmental-economic-priorities/ printed on July 25, 2014