AUGUSTA, Maine — New mining regulations that proponents say will take advantage of the state’s considerable underground natural resources and which environmental activists say will be disastrous took another step toward enactment Tuesday when a citizen-led board signed off on a new draft.
The Board of Environmental Protection, which met Tuesday in Augusta, is nearing the end of a months-long process of deliberations and hearings. Its unanimous vote early Tuesday afternoon clears the way for the publication of the latest version of the rules, which are subject to a written public comment period that ends Dec. 23.
Financial assurances from mine operators, cleanup and containment measures and setback requirements dominated much of Tuesday’s discussion, which centered on a list of 10 more substantive changes made to the proposed rules since a heavily attended October 17 public hearing.
At issue are detailed rules developed by the Department of Environmental Protection in accordance to LD 1853, a new mining rule enacted by the Legislature in 2012. The legislation came forward after Canadian timber company JD Irving, Ltd., announced it wants to mine a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, where it believe there are substantial deposits of copper and zinc.
The Board of Environmental Protection scrutinized the proposed rules, which would apply to all of Maine, in advance of the Legislature’s final consideration, which is expected in the coming months.
BEP member Susan Lessard was one of the most vocal critics of some of the proposed changes, particularly a section that would regulate the waste-management plan that is supposed to protect the environment from acids and other materials that are known to be byproducts of mining. Lessard said the proposed rules give too much leeway to mining operators and in some cases could be interpreted to mean that cleanup efforts could be allowed to go on perpetually. The draft rules refer to waste-management activities that could continue for more than 30 years after a mine’s closure.
“The more flexibility you built into this, the harder time the department will have guiding applicants to do the right thing,” said Lessard. “I want to make sure the department has the tools that it needs to protect us. … Practically everything [the BEP] has ever done has been litigated and pushed by people who don’t want to do things in quite that way.”
Other members of the board said the rules need to give the DEP latitude when it comes to approving mining operations and that capping the duration of post-closure waste management activities would stand in the way of that.
“For the department to approve a plan, they have to have some basis to do that,” said BEP member James Parker. “I think you have to allow the department the ability to determine that.”
Another source of debate was how far a mine has to be from certain natural areas. A previous version of the rules called for a one-mile setback from national and state parks and refuges, national wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, certain waterways and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. That setback was changed to a quarter mile in the proposals considered Tuesday, which again attracted Lessard’s criticisms.
“Going from a mile to a quarter mile seems to be too drastic. It’s 1,320 feet,” she said. “We’re considering things within 8 miles for wind power. … I think it’s not enough.”
BEP member Tom Eastler, a University of Maine at Farmington environmental geology professor, said there are situations where a quarter-mile setback might be adequate, especially in mines where the entrance may be much farther away. He argued that underground mines and tunnels already criss-cross the United States without problems.
“There are huge water tunnels that bring water into New York City and the massive constructions that are going on in regard to dam operations all over the world,” said Eastler. “We don’t see any of those and they are all monitored. I can see the concern, but if there were no concern as determined by the department, there should be no problem.”
The board also decided to ramp up the financial responsibilities of mine operators, requiring them to fully fund a large enough trust fund to pay for cleanup before starting major work at the site.
Several members of the audience at Tuesday’s hearing have been following and criticizing the mining rules through the process. Some of them, including Diane Messer of Liberty, said they moved to Maine from other states to escape activities like mining.
“I don’t think it can be done safely,” she said. “The impacts can be so hazardous and so long-lasting.”
The BEP is scheduled to take a final vote on the rules on Jan. 10. Written public comments about the 10 substantive rules are due Dec. 23 and should be mailed to Jeffrey Crawford, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.