2015 has been a year of seconds with respect to mining. For the second time, the Department of Environmental Protection submitted the same weak mining rules it submitted to the Legislature in 2014. For the second time, the Legislature wisely rejected them.
Also for the second straight year, a mining disaster occurred soon after the end of the legislative session and proved that the Legislature was right to reject DEP’s rules. On Aug. 4, 2014, the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia failed, releasing billions of gallons of mining waste into pristine lakes and streams. The effects of the pollution from this modern mine, which its owner built in 1997, will linger for decades in some of the most important salmon habitat in Western Canada.
After the Mount Polley disaster, many Mainers breathed a sigh of relief that the Legislature had blocked weak rules that would have allowed Canada-based J.D. Irving to mine at Bald Mountain. Weakened rules also could have threatened Maine by attracting global mining companies to exploit ore deposits located throughout the state, including within and adjacent to public lands; pristine rivers, lakes and streams; and prized wildlife habitat.
This summer, many Mainers are relieved again that the Legislature rejected DEP’s weak rules as the disaster at the Gold King Mine in Colorado has unfolded. On Aug. 5, 2015, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency team removed debris that was blocking an old mine shaft at the Gold King Mine and caused a major mining waste spill. This and other mines nearby had been leaking highly acidic wastewater and heavy metals for decades, killing most of the fish in the upper Animas River even before the Aug. 5 spill. EPA was investigating the cause of the leaks in order to reduce their severity. Instead, they made the problem much worse — demonstrating, once again, that when it comes to mining, accidents happen. Despite claims by mining advocates that mining disasters are a thing of the past, they keep happening, both at new and old mines.
The Aug. 5 Colorado spill leaked millions more gallons of acidic, metal-containing water into the Animas River. The river turned a sickly yellow color for days, and local officials had to close it to recreation temporarily. Towns 75 miles away — across the New Mexico border — turned off their drinking water intakes due to the spill. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation all issued emergency declarations. Businesses that depend on the river are losing money and clients. People are scared as far away as Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, which the plume eventually reached.
The lesson here is clear: mines create massive volumes of polluted wastewater and tailings that last forever. Mines will always be accidents waiting to happen. Mining industry advocates would like to blame this spill solely on EPA, but that is unreasonable. Whether EPA simply made a mistake or was incompetent is irrelevant. There is no evidence that new mines are any different from old mines over the long term. Today’s new mines will be the “legacy mines” of the future. They will likely cause many of the same problems that old mines do now.
Maine should never have to face a disaster like those at Mount Polley or Gold King. Neither the 2014 nor the 2015 mining rules would have prevented such disasters, nor would they have ensured that Maine taxpayers would be protected from having to pay for clean-up long after mining companies leave the state.
This year, the Legislature again acted in a strong, bipartisan manner to reject weak mining rules. The Natural Resources Council of Maine is again grateful to the Legislature for doing so. This summer’s disaster at Gold King Mine is a stark reminder that weak mining rules have no place in Maine.
Nick Bennett is staff scientist and watersheds project director at the Natural Resource Council of Maine.