AUGUSTA, Maine — Rules for large-scale mining in Maine that failed last year are coming back to the Legislature this week despite familiar objections from the environmental community.
The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee is expecting a heavy turnout Wednesday when it hears public comment on LD 146, a Department of Environmental Protection-sponsored bill that proposes to enact the same rules that were scuttled last year by the Legislature.
How to implement large-scale mining in Maine has been bouncing around the State House since 2012 when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that overhauled mining regulations that had been in place since 1991. The bill called for the DEP to launch a rulemaking process that involved weeks of deliberations by the citizen-led Board of Environmental Protection, which unanimously supported a set of rules in January 2014.
The rules then went to the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which in a surprise party-line vote, with Democrats having assumed the majority, endorsed a resolve to send the rules back to the DEP for a do-over, with new rules due by February 2016.
Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill because he thought the Legislature was trying to outlaw mining through rulemaking. The Legislature failed to override the veto.
Among the objections to the department’s proposed rules was that it failed to do enough to protect groundwater and that it didn’t hold mining operators accountable for long-term environmental damages.
JD Irving Ltd., a Canadian lumber company, has an interest in mining for copper and zinc on a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. However, the rules would apply to the entire state.
The original bill that authorized mining in 2012 was sponsored by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who was voted out of the Legislature later that year but was re-elected in 2014. Martin proposed a resolve related to mining this year, but he withdrew the bill earlier this month.
Nick Bennett, a scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine — which leads a coalition of environmental groups that oppose the measure — said it’s unclear whether the fact there are more Republicans in the Legislature this year than there were last year will make a difference. Democrats still hold a majority in the House of Representatives.
“There’s not one change whatsoever,” said Bennett of the rules in this year’s bill, compared with the rules that were rejected last year. DEP spokesman Karl Wilkins confirmed that assertion Monday afternoon.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, along with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Maine Audubon, Maine Conservation Voters, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited sent the committee a list of problems with the bill last week. The objections include, among others, that the rules allow the perpetual treatment of groundwater near closed mines instead of requiring cleanup to be done within 10 years; that pollution monitoring activities are inadequate; and that mining companies are not required to set aside enough money leading into a mining operation to cover any potential pollution.