AUGUSTA, Maine — Only one person testified Thursday in favor of proposed new regulations governing large-scale metal mining in Maine, while more than 20 voiced their concerns about the potential for toxic wastes and minerals being released into the environment and nearby waters.
Democratic Rep. Ralph Chapman of Brooksville said that the Board of Environmental Protection and Department of Environmental Protection are in “an untenable situation” because a 2012 law that the new rules apply to “constrains your ability” to “reasonably regulate metal mining.”
The 2012 law ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to draft new rules to regulate mining, which hasn’t occurred in Maine since 1977, but the Legislature has twice rejected proposals in the last three years amid concerns that they lacked enough protections.
During a Board of Environmental Protection hearing on the Department of Environmental Protection’s third proposal on Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center, the board members listened as the vast majority of those offering comments again opposed suggested new rules to replace those established in 1990. Some lawmakers and industry supporters of the 2012 law have said the old regulations amounted to a de facto ban on mining.
Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said during the hearing that the 2012 law, unlike the 1990 law, specifically allows groundwater contamination in a mining area and mining in floodplains. She said the agency had to account for that provision of the law in coming up with the new proposed rules.
In response, Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine and longtime critic of opening Maine to mining, said that the Department of Environmental Protection should instead work with the Legislature to change what he argued is an ultimately flawed law.
“I think there’s a good chance these rules are going to get rejected by the Legislature again,” he said.
While Bennett criticized a number of provisions of the law and regulations, he lauded the Department of Environmental Protection for adopting several changes in this proposal, including more specific requirements for monitoring of contaminants and a 10-year rather than 30-year period of phasing out the need for active treatment of discharged water after a mine’s closure.
Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, testified in opposition to the regulations, but she suggested that if they go through, Maine’s tribes should be given intervenor status to challenge mining projects near tribal lands.
“This will really affect us,” Commander said, referring to a potential metal mine proposed by J.D. Irving Ltd. at Bald Mountain west of Portage, which prompted the new mining law in 2012. The Houlton Band of Maliseets recently purchased land in Garfield Plantation, 8 miles south of Bald Mountain, with the plans of bottling water from wells and springs on the property.
Also testifying in opposition to the proposed regulations, Matthew Scott, a former chief fisheries biologist for the Department of Environmental Protection, complimented Department of Environmental Protection staff for their work on a complex issue, but he raised concerns about mining impacts on habitat and aquatic life. He said he feared the long-term effects of acidic and toxic wastewater that is often produced when mining copper, gold and zinc, as would be mined at Bald Mountain.
“The after-effects of mining are historically forever,” Scott said.
Alice Bolstridge, a 78-year-old retired teacher from Presque Isle who grew up in Portage, echoed Scott and said she remains opposed to the rules and metal mining in general until mining technology “advances sufficiently to protect the environment.”
“These rules would threaten Aroostook County’s sustainable industries of outdoor sports, agriculture and forestry that are all dependent on clean water,” she said.
Robert Marvinney, the Maine State Geologist, said that mining technology is already advanced enough to manage mining waste and prevent contamination, while still allowing for the extraction of metals and minerals that are essential to modern life.
The lone speaker to testify in support of the rules during Thursday’s hearing, Marvinney said that the Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula shows that mining “can be done in a responsible way in the northern temperate climate.” Marvinney and staff from the Department of Environmental Protection recently visited the copper and nickel mine to get a sense of how the industry operates there.
Maine and Michigan have similar geologies and climates, and in Michigan, mining companies and regulators have “to address water much like Maine would have to deal with water.” Both states have more annual precipitation than states in the American West with large mining industries, and that can require treatment of acidic water that can build up.
While Marvinney said that Michigan has relatively new and strong environmental regulations for mining, which the Eagle Mine was approved under, he said he thinks that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed rules “are actually stricter than Michigan’s in several ways.”
The Eagle Mine, for instance, is located about 1,000 feet underneath the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River and will retain impoundments of mine wastewater, known as “wet tailings,” after the mine closes, Marvinney said. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed rules would prohibit mining underneath water bodies and prohibit wastewater tailings to remain post-closure.
Jim Boyle, an environmental consultant from Gorham who used to work as a forester in northern Maine, was one of two people who testified neither for nor against the proposal. He suggested that the Department of Environmental Protection consider requiring a third-party independent monitor who would observe the mining process and track compliance in real-time.
In some of the concerns raised by opponents of mining, “there’s a measure of mistrust,” he said. An independent expert monitoring mining would “go a long way to establishing a level of trust with the public if this were all to happen.”
The Department of Environmental Protection is accepting public comments on its latest proposal for new metal mining regulations through Sept. 26. Afterward, the Board of Environmental Protection will review the comments and vote on whether to approve the proposed regulations. Any new measures also then would have to be approved by the Legislature.
Comments can be emailed to MiningComments2016@dep.maine.gov or mailed to Jeff Crawford, 17 State House Station, Augusta, Maine, 04333.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Alice Bolstridge's last name.