AUGUSTA, Maine — The Board of Environmental Protection on Friday afternoon voted 5-0 to approve new mining rules that govern metallic mining operations in the state.

At issue are detailed rules developed by the Department of Environmental Protection in accordance with LD 1853, new mining legislation enacted in 2012. The legislation came forward after Canadian timber company JD Irving Ltd. announced it wants to mine a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, where it believes there are substantial deposits of copper and zinc.

The citizen board’s vote marks the end of a months-long process of deliberations and hearings. It will now send the draft rules, which would apply to the entire state, to the Legislature for consideration.

Before the vote, the board did instruct DEP staff to make a few changes to the draft rules, including increasing from one-quarter mile to a mile the distance surface mines can be from national parks, wildlife refuges and other designated environmental areas.

The board did take public comments on Friday morning. Opponents of the rules argued that they are not stringent enough.

“As drafted today these rules are really vague and they’re not at all protective enough for Maine’s valuable environmental resources,” said Kaitlyn Bernard of the Appalachian Mountain Club during the public comment period. “We’re not against mining. If mining development is in Maine’s future, the state must develop clear and protective rules and tools to ensure people and landscapes are protected, and these rules simply aren’t adequate.”

A major sticking point during the board’s deliberations was how long a period of time a company should be allowed to treat mining waste at the site post closure.

BEP member Jim Parker suggested the addition of language that would allow waste to continue to be treated for more than 30 years if using what are known as “wet waste mine units” and “provided the department determines it’s the most practicable alternative for waste management.”

Parker said his intent in adding the language, which was approved by a 4-1 vote, was to give DEP staff all the available tools to handle the situation.

“If we take this off the table” — referring to the wet waste mine units — “it’s like saying you could build a house only use wood beams and not steel,” Parker said following the vote.

BEP member Susan Lessard, the town manager of Hampden, was strongly opposed to the language that would allow companies to be treating waste for more than 30 years after a mine’s closure, no matter what kind of technology is used.

“I don’t think that meets our charge, which is prudent environmental oversight,” she said. “We shouldn’t be permitting things we can’t see the end of in terms of the cleanup.”

While opposing that language, Lessard did vote to approve the rules, but said before the vote that she hopes her concerns are passed along to the Legislature.

“I have great concern over it,” she said.

Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the change to allow what he calls “perpetual treatment” is substantive, and should be reopened for public comment.

The new language mentions “a defined period of time” of more than 30 years, which Bennett points out could be a 1,000 years. He said that’s what mining companies have put on applications in other states that also have vague regulations around clean-up.

Bennett advocates for a 10-year period during which all cleanup and treatment is complete after a mine closes.

“That should be enough time for them to get their act together and clean up the site. They don’t need 1,000 years or 500 years,” Bennett said following the vote. “If it’s going to take that long, that mine should not be allowed.”

In addition, another change would allow mining on or adjacent to more public lands than initially proposed, including on lands purchased with public funds as part of the Land for Maine’s future program, Bennett said.

Bennett and Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited expressed concerns after the vote that the board did not realize the extent to which they just opened up land to mining.

“The key point is nobody knows what land was just excluded,” Reardon said.

Despite the opponents who called the rules too lenient, Lawrence Fitzgerald, a former exploration geologist with 30 years experience in the field, spoke during the public comment period in favor of the rules as written.

“I don’t envision the floodgates will open,” he said. “This is still a really onerous set of regulations. … I don’t want to see a mine on Acadia National Park or Mount Katahdin, but I do see some places where it is appropriate.”

Before the final vote, Robert Foley, the BEP’s chairman, addressed the controversial nature of the rules.

“While people may not like what we end up with, [they] need to know we take our job seriously and came up with what we think are the best rules we can come up with,” he said, “and the Legislature can do with it what they please.”

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.