I have observed mines and mining operations on three continents and in many countries. What too many have in common are the contaminated waters, decimated fish populations, polluted air and destroyed landscapes left behind. Those consequences elsewhere — and in Maine — should be enough to convince Maine residents that they don’t want a new mining operation here that could endanger the wildlife, fishery, forestry and recreation areas that are this state’s proven assets.
The Red Dog Mine in northwest Alaska is one of the largest lead and zinc operations in the world. It is located near the headwaters of the Wulik River upstream of the coastal village of Kivalina. An integral part of this mining operation includes a large settling basin where mining waste and treatment water are stored. Several years ago, this settling basin failed, and the resulting spill killed thousands of Dolly Varden char and Pacific salmon all the way to the Baring Sea.
In northwest Russia, the mining and refining of nickel ore near the city of Nikel has left the countryside covered with toxic fallout many miles downwind of the mining operation. While not unusual in Russia (or the former USSR) it has left a lasting negative environmental legacy.
The remains of many older copper mines in Arizona have left whole valleys festooned with multi-colored toxic bands that are the result of runoff from tailings piles. While modern mining techniques are employed today in Arizona’s important copper industry the old surface mining areas lie abandoned and their legacy of tailings piles continue to leach toxic substances into surface and groundwater areas.
Closer to home, the Callahan Mines in Brooksville were permitted to operate after the company sold the idea to the state and local governments as a source of wealth and an employment engine. This open pit mine operated for only four years, and the environmental cleanup, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, is still going on 40 years later. The short-term jobs for Maine residents consisted largely of low-paying, blue-collar work. The high-paying mining jobs went to those people with mining experience or mining education. Many of those folks came from elsewhere and left when the mine closed.
These stories can be retold for the coal mines in Appalachia and the Dakotas, diamond mines in Africa, the gold mines in South America, asbestos mines in Canada, iron mines in Norway, and on and on. Maine should learn from past experiences and be very cautious. Perhaps hard rock mining can be done in an environmentally safe manner in Maine. However, history has shown that mine operators will promise the moon and deliver something far less.
The proposed mines for Maine are located in highly important wildlife, fishery, forestry and recreation areas. These are proven assets for the state. They have provided wealth, employment and respite for Maine people throughout our history. Operating a hard rock mine, with its inherent environmental issues and its unending degradation of the area wherever established, is incompatible with Maine values. The high concentrations of sulfur and arsenic in the ore at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County virtually guarantee a large volume of tailings if operated as an open pit mine that will forever be a potential source for surface and groundwater contamination.
The mining rules proposed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection through LD 1772, a bill pending in the Maine Legislature, include some well thought-out and responsible actions.
However, one provision could easily allow for liquid waste ponds to be maintained forever, and the controls designed to protect surface runoff and sub-surface waters are inadequate. No one believes that man-made tailings lagoons can last “forever,” and structural failure of these lagoons can lead to disastrous environmental consequences. Also, there is no amount of water anywhere that does not eventually end up in some stream, river or lake. Gravity ensures that it all ends up downhill from where it is deposited. Polluted water, as a result of mining operations, will end up elsewhere in our environment. We need to go to great lengths to eliminate this potential.
The proposed mining rules the Legislature is considering will not adequately protect our environment. The Legislature should send the rules back to the department to correct the rules’ shortcomings.
Fred Kircheis of Carmel is a retired fisheries research Scientist and former executive director of the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.