For three months I’ve been part of a tiny handful of citizens watching a drive to approve weakened metallic mining regulations that threaten Maine’s precious environment and that challenge the very character of Maine’s democracy.
We have attended a dozen-plus mining hearings and work sessions of the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) (viewing anything we missed on a complete YouTube-posted video record by public-spirited stalwarts such as Eric A. Tuttle and Martha Spiess).
ENR has now completed its work. The considerable commitment of many to the process has had a satisfying effect. The prodigious efforts of Chairs Sen. Thomas Saviello and Rep. Joan Welsh, and the special contributions of other committee members, notably Reps. Robert Duchesne, Ralph Tucker, Andrew Buckland and John Martin (but other members as well), is reflected in the latest version. Rep. Ralph Chapman brought an alternative approach to the committee despite not being a member. Ultimately, all that work proved insufficient.
The root problem is LD 1853, the framework statute passed in spring 2012. Introduced late in the session as a four-line “concept bill,” a few weeks later it expanded to 23 pages drafted by J.D. Irving’s legal team. It received a few days of intense hearings, was rubber-stamped by the Legislature, and signed by the governor. Elapsed time? Thirty some-odd days. Emblematic of the bill’s problems? It inexplicably allowed waste discharge to groundwater within the mining area! Three years later what is being recommended to the Legislature retains that permission unaltered.
Metallic mining usually means sulfide ores. They are ground to powder and treated with chemical leachates to remove the metallic compounds. The huge volume of wet sulfide waste is impounded or otherwise stored and kept from affecting ground and surface waters. Why? Because sulfides exposed to air and water become sulphuric acid. That’s not good for trout, salmon, amphibians, aquifers, our economy … or people! It is clearly anathema to the two huge things Maine has going for us — our environment and our pure water.
There have been a few improvements to the bill. Most — but not yet all — public lands have been removed from consideration. Definitions and other language have been clarified. Two specific risky mining practices have been disallowed. Financial assurance in the event of accidents has been clarified and marginally strengthened (but major weaknesses still remain).
But the bottom line remains clear. The Legislature must be urged to defeat these still deeply flawed mining regulations. Private greed’s desire for speed on this must be made to wait until the public and environmental health and safety are assured.
Our representatives and senators should take this back to the drawing boards. The original bill Chapman, D-Brooksville, proposed, not the gutted version reported out, is the place to restart next session. It would require the Board of Environmental Protection to identify and define the risks, protect the public and the environment against them, and assure that permission accorded any private interests seeking permission to mine will be approved only on the guarantee that they’ve also assumed responsibility for the costs of complete remediation of any resulting adverse events.
At the outset I referred to these developments as being a challenge to our democracy. The public in Maine enjoys the right to comment on major substantive rules before they are promulgated and the right to expect that government follows orderly procedures. This was shortchanged by the Board of Environmental Protection in the 2013 rulemaking process. It was compromised when the ENR undertook to alter the rules itself (even though it had no financial resources to commission disinterested expert testimony). While ENR scheduled a third public hearing, how effective can a citizen be with 180 seconds of testimony on 90 pages of intricate regulation? But worse yet, the bill on its way to the House actually contains two provisions, one of which excuses after the fact the serious procedural shortcomings by which these regulations came to the Legislature for a second time after being defeated in 2014, and the other which trusts, and specifically authorizes, the Department of Environmental Protection to promulgate final regulations presumably being fully guided by the Legislature’s intent but without any further public review.
Much is at stake. For me, the past few months have been an intense tutorial — legislative, administrative, and regarding corporate influence on legislation — on what’s happening in and to the kind of government we think we have. It demands close scrutiny, by all who have the gumption to provide it.
But first, our legislators need to vote “no” on LD 750 and start over.
Hendrik Gideonse of Brooklin is a former selectman, retired educator and policy analyst.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Rep. Ralph Chapman’s town of residence as Blue Hill. He lives in Brooksville.