AUGUSTA, Maine — The citizen-led Board of Environmental Protection, which is on the verge of a final sign-off on new rules related to large-scale mineral mining in Maine, on Thursday debated nuanced changes suggested in hundreds of pages of written comments that have been submitted in support of and opposition to mining in the state.
The board has been working on the mining rules for months and is scheduled to take a final vote on Jan. 10 in order to send the proposed rules to the Legislature for consideration. The deadline for written comments about the proposed rules is Monday.
At issue are detailed rules developed by the Department of Environmental Protection in accordance with LD 1853, new mining legislation enacted 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 believes there are substantial deposits of copper and zinc. The rules under consideration would apply to the whole state.
Environmentalists have argued that making the rules too lenient would open Maine to the possibility of a disaster that could contaminate some of the state’s important natural areas. Mining proponents have urged the board not to make the rules so strict as to undermine the economic potential of mineral mining in Maine.
Much of the discussion Thursday focused on nuances in the spirit of making the rules as specific as possible to avoid misunderstandings between the DEP and mine operators and to ensure that the rules hold up if they are challenged in court.
Jeff Crawford, the DEP’s point person on public comments related to the mining rules, told the board Thursday that many of the comments submitted to date centered on the level of detail required in a mining proposal in regard to where exactly on a site mining would take place and whether there would be more than one site. Crawford said he was changing hundreds of references to “mining area” in the rules to “each mining area.”
“Some of the requirements certainly apply to multiple mining areas and hopefully this will reduce some of the confusion,” said Crawford.
Another area of the rules proposed for adjustment by the department is the treatment of any materials taken from the ground, which could include sampling holes, the ore deposits miners are looking for or the so-called “overburden,” which is soil and other matter that has to be removed to access the ore deposits. In addition to moving toward stricter monitoring of those materials for harmful substances, there are adjustments proposed to what the rules say constitutes a storage pile, differentiating between temporary and permanent facilities.
Crawford said several commenters raised concerns about air quality around mining pits, specifically dust.
“We thought it was important to clarify in the rule that the mine operator would have to capture fugitive dust,” he said.
Phyllis Coelho and David Smith of Belfast, who have been vocal opponents of mining in Maine, said that while they appreciated that the board appears to be taking public comments seriously, they see the whole process of developing the mining rules as flawed because of too much corporate influence.
“This whole process is flawed because it comes from Irving’s interest in Bald Mountain,” said Smith.”
Coelho said she saw parallels between the board’s deliberations of the mining rules and its continued focus on industrial wind farm development. Coelho said she saw the board as having a tougher stance on wind farms than on mining operations.
“If wind is done in a careful way, environmentally it’s much better than open-pit mining and mountaintop removal,” she said. “I believe that no mining is the way we have to go.”