AUGUSTA, Maine — House lawmakers Thursday afternoon voted 109 to 36 to oppose a bill aimed at allowing large-scale metal mining in the state.
The amended version of LD 750 sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, was rejected after more than two hours of floor speeches.
“Despite the hard work of the [Legislature’s] Environment and Natural Resources Committee, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle did not believe the rules went far enough to safeguard our water and natural resources,” House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a written statement following the vote. “Like so many young families in our state, my wife and I chose to raise our three children in Maine because of the quality of life here. I worry about the harm these mining rules could bring to our water, land and air, plus the cost taxpayers could face for cleaning up pollution in the future.”
Lawmakers have been debating metal mining regulations since J.D. Irving Ltd. announced a few years ago that it was looking to develop an open-pit mining operation to harvest substantial deposits of copper and zinc from a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. There also are significant mineral deposits in Franklin, Hancock, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties that also could prove attractive to the mining industry.
Supporters said that mining techniques have changed dramatically over the years and that responsibly operated mines could employ thousands of people, including hundreds at Bald Mountain, and provide significant economic benefits.
They also said the measure provides sensible, environmentally sound mining regulations that would encourage responsible mining activities.
Eves said Thursday the state’s first priority should be public health, public safety and the environment.
“Here in Maine, our economy and our quality of life depend on our natural resources,” he added.
The Legislature rejected similar legislation containing mining rules from the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2014, saying that the regulations failed to protect the state’s lakes, rivers, streams and taxpayers. The DEP submitted the exact same rules again in 2015, and the majority of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee recently voted in favor of the bill, LD 750, after amending it to include some changes.
Nick Bennett, a scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Thursday that the committee members “only made some changes, but none were significant enough.”
He said he felt the House vote Thursday reflected the public’s concern about weak mining rules and about preventing the contamination of surface and groundwater.
“I think the vote all came down to clean water,” he said. “It strongly reflects that people realize how important it is to have clean water.”
Bennett said that a number of individuals were on hand to watch the vote on the bill, and that most of the debate centered around concern that the rules did not do enough to protect water quality or provide any protection in the event of a disaster at a mine.
Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said that Maine taxpayers are still paying for the cleanup costs from the Callahan Mine in Brooksville, which hasn’t operated since 1972. The open-pit mine operated for only four years, but taxpayers are still footing the bill for cleanup costs of about $1 million a year, he said.
The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate, which Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for Eves, said Thursday could take place as early as Friday.