AUGUSTA, Maine — A compromise bill that would allow mining in Maine with strict environmental protections sailed easily through the state House of Representatives on Thursday, putting it on a smooth path toward final passage in the Legislature.
It could end the five-year struggle over mining in Maine, prompted by a Republican-backed 2012 law aiming to allow mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County after a subsidiary of the Canadian industrial behemoth J.D. Irving expressed interest in it.
Since 2012, draft sets of rules have so far been blocked by Democrats and assailed as weak by environmentalists. The Natural Resources Council of Maine — which spearheaded that opposition — is behind this year’s bill from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell.
It would add protections that include banning large-scale open-pit mining and ensuring that companies pay to mitigate contamination stemming from a catastrophic event or failure.
The bill passed the House initially in a 126-14 vote on Thursday after a unanimous Senate vote last week and faces final action in both chambers. A bill that would have banned large-scale sulfide ore mining in Maine failed in an earlier 98-42 vote.
“This is real progress. It brings the rules and the statute together,” said Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “It gives legal clarity for business. It is much more protective than what we have now.”
It’s getting support from Democrats largely because of the environmental safeguards and from Republicans because it allows a path to mining, which is effectively banned under laws dating back to 1990 after pollution problems that surfaced at the former Callahan Mine in Brooksville.
Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, led the opposition to the bill, noting that the bill allows open-pit mining on sites of 3 acres and allows groundwater pollution limited to a mining area, which he called “fake science” that didn’t assure that there won’t be pollution elsewhere.
A return of mining in Maine under the bill or otherwise is unlikely. Metal hasn’t been mined here since the 1970s and the Irving subsidiary that spent more than $100,000 to lobby the issue in 2015 hasn’t lobbied on Carson’s bill this year.
It’s unclear whether or not Gov. Paul LePage will veto the proposal, since the Republican’s administration has backed the defeated sets of mining rules and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection testified against Carson’s bill at a March hearing.
LePage spokesman Peter Steele didn’t answer questions about the governor’s stance this week, but Rep. Jeffrey Pierce of Dresden said he and other Republicans backing the bill met with LePage on Thursday and while the governor doesn’t back it, there are only “a few issues.”
“Is it perfect? In some people’s eyes, no,” Pierce said on the House floor. “In some people’s eyes, it’s the best of great bipartisan work with committee members and all stakeholders.”