The new metallic mineral mining rule that Maine Board of Environmental Protection has just sent to the Legislature for approval makes me think of that line in the Joni Mitchell song: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?”
I’m lucky to have had the privilege in my professional career to have learned “what we got” in Maine. Working for nearly 30 years at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as a water pollution biologist and in water quality standards, I’ve traveled throughout the state studying the aquatic life of our rivers and streams. Working for the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the European Commission, I’ve also seen how much of the rest of the country and Europe manage their water quality.
Compared with other locations, we have an astounding quality of place here in Maine. Our waters are clean and ecologically healthy. Maine’s wild brook trout populations are the envy of the nation. Through strong science, sound policy and public demand, rivers in Maine that were once severely degraded have been restored to biological integrity.
In my professional experience, metallic mineral mining is near the top of the list of the most damaging activities that humans inflict on the natural environment. Expert testimony has revealed that the geology of Maine’s ore deposits poses a particularly high risk of generating dangerous, hard-to-manage contamination from mining activities.
The band of potentially exploitable ore deposits spreads far and wide across the state, making strong mining rules a concern for all of us. Prevention of problems ultimately costs far less than salvaging a mess after it has occurred. When environmental impacts occur from acid rock drainage, they are often irreversible in the context of human time scales. If it is technologically possible to prevent serious mining impacts, then we need better rules than these to ensure it.
Is mining really our best solution to promote jobs and economic growth? In the long run, the unforeseen consequences of poorly considered policy are far more costly and detrimental to the overall economy, environment and reputation of Maine than maintaining our traditionally high standards for environmental protection.
The rule that has come out of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is surprising due to its lack of responsiveness to widely voiced, well-reasoned public concerns that the rule is insufficiently protective. Groundwater contamination is allowed as a given in the statute and the rule.
Consider this: In its response to public comments, Maine DEP states: “Unregulated discharges to groundwater that, within a mining area, result in failure to meet water quality criteria otherwise required by state law are specifically allowed by statute for metallic mineral mines.” Maine DEP also admits that “such groundwater will almost inevitably leave the area where the discharge occurs.”
By Maine DEP’s own admission, even with extreme vigilance, metallic mineral mining will contaminate ground and surface waters of Maine. That’s why the mining rules just finalized make such astonishing allowances for decades — to generations of waste treatment — before water quality standards must be met.
Substantive changes to the rule were made during the holidays but were called minor. For example, they potentially restrict permit intervener status to municipal officials, thereby preventing citizen groups from voicing their concerns. In a stark break with long-standing precedent, the department states, in response to public comments, that it does not intend to submit these mining rules to the U.S. EPA for federal review for compliance with Clean Water Act requirements for water quality standards. Great risk of future challenge is introduced, for both mining interests and the state, when there has been no formal meeting of minds about compliance with federal water quality law.
Maine’s treasured natural resources are irreplaceable. They are our inspiration, our brand and our livelihood. We know what we have here in Maine; we are proud that it’s not gone yet. These rules and the law that spawned them risk a corruption of all that is best about our state. They should be rejected by the Legislature.
Susan Davies of Liberty is a biologist and former water quality standards coordinator for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.