As lawmakers again consider whether to approve regulations allowing open pit metal mining under a controversial 2012 law, the Natural Resources Council of Maine is supporting a new bill that the group says would offer better environmental protections.

The Maine Legislature’s Joint Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing starting at 9 a.m. March 20 to allow individuals and organizations to weigh in on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s third proposal for changing mining regulations under a controversial 2012 law.

Spurred by J.D. Irving Ltd.’s interest in potentially developing a metal mine in Aroostook County, the law required the DEP to draft new rules permitting metal mining operations and replacing a mining law and set of regulations adopted in 1990.

Following opposition from environmental groups and citizens around the state, the Legislature has twice rejected two versions of rules developed by the DEP under the 2012 law, amid concerns they lacked enough protections.

The Legislature is set to vote again this session on whether or not to approve the DEP’s third iteration of proposed regulations, which include some changes aimed at increasing water quality protections from acid-generating waste and other environmental risks of mining.

The public hearing will invite citizens to share their thoughts on the proposed regulations, as well as seven mining-related bills proposed by legislators, including one that would adopt the DEP’s proposed regulations and one that would amend the controversial 2012 metal mining law and have the agency develop regulations with more specific environmental protections.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine is supporting LD 820, a bill introduced by Sen. Everett Carson, D-Cumberland, and co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, that would amend the 2012 law to add a range of new conditions for permitting metal mining.

The bill “is much more protective of water quality,” Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said. “It addresses some, though not all, of the biggest problems with the 2017 mining rules, particularly those DEP has repeatedly claimed it cannot address” through rulemaking because of the 2012 law.

LD 820 would only allow limited groundwater pollution from mines within a mining area under several conditions, including parameters set by the DEP using “site-specific geologic and hydrologic characteristics.” The 2012 law, originally sponsored by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, was criticized for having a lax approach to water impacts from mining and allowing unlimited groundwater discharges within a mining area as long as they do “not result in contamination of groundwater beyond each mining area.” Bennett argues that actually containing unlimited amounts of groundwater pollution within a mining area would be “virtually impossible.”

LD 820 also would prohibit mining in, on or under public lands, lakes, rivers, coastal waters and wetlands, as well as in floodplains and flood hazard zones. On the issue of financial responsibility for a mine disaster, under LD 820 a mining developer would have to “pay enough money up front, as determined by a third party, to a trust to clean up a worst-case environmental disaster.”

“This bill would provide stronger protections for the environment,” Alice Bolstridge, a retired educator in Presque Isle who will be traveling to Augusta to testify at the hearing, said. Bolstridge grew up in Portage, not far from the Bald Mountain site that has been eyed for several potential mines since the 1970s, and she’ll be arguing against the DEP’s rules and in favor of prohibiting metal mining outright. “Any open-pit mine is far too risky.”

The other mining-related bills being considered are LD 254, which would institute a moratorium on metallic mineral mining; LD 253, which would repeal the 2012 mining law; and LD 160, which would restrict some mining of metal sulfide deposits.