New large-scale mining rules panned during hours of testimony to lawmakers

Posted Feb. 24, 2014, at 3:07 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 24, 2014, at 5:54 p.m.
Christopher Johnson
Troy Bennett
Christopher Johnson

AUGUSTA, Maine — Long-simmering controversy around new rules for mine operators that proponents say will revive an industrial sector that has been dormant for more than 30 years in Maine continued Monday in Augusta, where the proposed rules finally made it to the Legislature.

Judging by testimony offered Monday and responses from the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, the rules won’t have an easier time in the State House than they did during months of consideration by the Board of Environmental Protection. However, there was testimony from a handful of people who said mining technology has advanced considerably in recent decades and that Maine needs to take advantage of its underground natural resources for the sake of the economy.

At issue are two bills that would overhaul the Department of Environmental Protection’s metallic mineral mining rules. The rules follow passage of a bill in 2012, which was sponsored by former Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, which called for the development of the new rules. Though the law would apply to the entire state, it was prompted by an announcement from Canadian timber company J.D. Irving Ltd. that 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 citizen-led Board of Environmental Protection, after months of gathering testimony and amending the rules from the version proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection, endorsed the rules unanimously on Jan. 10.

Testimony to the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee on Monday was spirited and lengthy. Questions from lawmakers, particularly those posed to Jeffrey Crawford, who has led the development of the mining rules for the Department of Environmental Protection, showed that despite all the work that has already been done on the rules, some lawmakers aren’t satisfied. A key focus for opponents of the rules was the allegation that the department and Board of Environmental Protection didn’t respond strongly enough to arguments against the mining rules. Crawford, during an exchange with Rep. Roger Reed, R-Carmel, said he didn’t think that was the case.

“Do the rules as written reflect the comments and concerns addressed during the hearings?” asked Reed.

“The board’s rules reflect the board’s findings with respect to all of the comments that were submitted,” said Crawford.

“Then why all this concern about the rules?” said Reed.

“There is a lot of opposition to mining in general,” said Crawford.

That became clear on Monday, when opponents of the bill far outnumbered its supporters and many of them made it clear that they view mining as a risky and potentially hazardous activity regardless of what rules are in place. Of chief concern to many opponents is the possibility that large-scale metallic mineral mining could contaminate ground-source water with carcinogens and poisons.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, called the rules “entirely inadequate.”

“The DEP proposed draft rules to BEP that were too weak to protect Maine’s surface and groundwater, too weak to protect Maine from a perpetual treatment time-bomb and costs, and too weak to keep Maine from paying the price tag for mitigating the likely acid and arsenic ecological disaster,” said Johnson. “I testified before the BEP for strengthening those rules and addressing those issues. Their response was to make the rules even worse.”

Representatives from some of Maine’s Native American Tribes also opposed the mining rules.

“The mining rules under consideration today represent the greatest threat yet of widespread damage to the environment that my tribe holds dear,” said Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets. “Water is sacred to us. … The health and welfare of all of our people now and for many generations to come depend on clean water.”

Arguments by Johnson and others were that buffer zones required by the mining rules aren’t adequate enough to protect the majority of the state’s waterways, that on-sight cleanup guidelines aren’t strong enough and don’t have a short enough timeline, and that up-front financial commitments required of mine operators aren’t big enough to ensure that clean-up can happen in the event a mining company goes bankrupt.

Nick Bennett, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Maine is in danger of following numerous other states that have suffered serious pollution because of mining. Bennett’s organization estimates that in addition to the Bald Mountain site being eyed by J.D. Irving, the mining rules could lead to mining across vast swaths of Maine that are thought to be rich in volcanic and sedimentary deposits that could contain valuable metallic minerals.

“The Bald Mountain deposit and others like it have been present for hundreds of millions of years,” said Bennett. “They will be present after Maine develops mining rules that will protect our environment and taxpayers, even if that takes time.”

Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, urged passage of the rules.

“The future of Aroostook County and the state of Maine is dependent on new activities that will create new jobs,” said Fowler. “I trust that the experts in this field have the knowledge and foresight to develop policies that will protect the environment.”

Anthony Hourihan or Aroostook Resources, Inc., spoke on behalf of J.D. Irving, which is his organization’s parent company.

“These rules you have before you aren’t perfect, but I feel they are workable,” said Hourihan, though he said buffer zones in the law that would restrict open-pit mining up to a mile from national parks, state-owned wildlife refuges and other designated environmental areas pose problems.

“It becomes a shadow effect on the state that ties up hundreds of thousands of acres of economic development,” said Hourihan. “An arbitrary one-mile cookie-cutter from all state lands is something we need to look at.”

A recommendation from the committee is expected in the coming weeks, after which the bill will go to the full Legislature for consideration.

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