Dozens of Mainers showed up in Augusta on the first day of spring with a familiar message for members of the Legislature: open pit metal mining is too risky for Maine.
More than 40 citizens, plus additional representatives from environmental groups, voiced their opposition to large scale metal mining and to proposed regulations that could open the door for such mining to start up again in Maine during a public hearing Monday before the Maine Legislature’s Joint Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
For some, it was the third time testifying against proposed mining regulations submitted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in attempts to implement a controversial 2012 law.
“Initially, I thought mining might be an answer to the economic woes of our region,” Gail Maynard, an organic beef farmer from Woodland, said, referring to the potential for a metal mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Maynard said she soon concluded that open pit metal mines and their associated acid, arsenic and other contaminants would not be compatible with a sustainable natural resources economy in Maine, which receives much more rainfall than western states where open pit mines are common.
“There is no job worthy of destroying Aroostook County as we know it,” said Maynard, one of 15 people who travelled to Augusta from The County to testify in opposition to the regulations.
Bald Mountain has been eyed by several companies for its copper, gold and other metals since the 1970s, and it was a catalyst for the 2012 law that replaced a stringent mining law from 1990 that was enacted in the wake of mine failures in the midcoast area during the 1970s. One of those failures, the former Callahan Mine in Brooksville, is now a Superfund site. No large-scale metal mining has occurred in Maine since 1977.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, sponsored the 2012 law amid interest by J.D. Irving Ltd. in potentially developing a mine at Bald Mountain, a part of the Canadian forest products company’s 1.2 million acre Maine land holdings.
While Martin and other industry supporters maintained that the 1990 law effectively banned mining, critics contend that the 2012 law was written by Irving-hired lobbyists and would allow extensive water pollution, including virtually unlimited groundwater contamination inside a mining area.
The DEP was instructed to craft regulations carrying out the provisions of the 2012 law, but the Legislature twice before has rejected the rules amid opposition from citizens and environmental groups.
Now, lawmakers are again considering a third version of the rules — slightly changed from previous ones but still limited to the provisions of the 2012 law — as well as six other bills addressing mining in some form, including a moratorium, a ban on some mining of metal sulfide deposits and a new mining bill supported by environmental groups.
The new mining bill, LD 820, sponsored by Sen. Everett Carson, D-Harpswell, would go a long way toward protecting water quality and Maine taxpayers while still permitting mines, said Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“LD 820 addresses many of the biggest problems with the 2012 mining rules, particularly those DEP has repeatedly claimed it cannot address on its own through rulemaking,” Bennett said.
The bill would allow only limited groundwater pollution from mines within a mining area under several conditions, including parameters that could be set using “site-specific geologic and hydrologic characteristics.”
The bill would ban mines in, on or under public lands, under lakes, rivers, coastal waters, wetlands and floodplains. It also would require mining companies to post financial assurance to cover the cleanup costs of a worst-case environmental disaster.
Other people testifying in support of LD 820 suggested that it could be improved with a ban on open pit mining.
Those testifying in opposition to the DEP’s regulations and to open pit metal mining in general included Charlie Peter-Paul, chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, and Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, as well as Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Patty Blackstone of Circle B Farms in Caribou and a number of outdoor guides and lodge owners.
“It’s bad for the environment, bad for agriculture and bad for Maine,” said Blackstone, who co-owns the blueberry, apple and vegetable farm. Circle B irrigates with water from the Aroostook River, and its operators have to test their irrigation source for a host of contaminants, including metals, under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
If an open pit metal mine is allowed at Bald Mountain, or elsewhere in the Aroostook River watershed, Blackstone said she fears toxic metals such as arsenic will find their way into the water. “You cannot predict nature. Technology is fallible.”
Two people testified in support of permitting mining under the DEP’s proposed regulations or a revised bill.
Maine state geologist Robert Marvinney argued that despite Maine’s wet climate, metal mining could be done without major problems, pointing to a new underground copper and nickel mine in northern Michigan. Marvinney also pointed out that the DEP’s proposed regulations would ban “wet tailings” impoundments with acidic-generating waste, a feature of mines that has contributed to other notable mine failures.
Also testifying in support of mining was Bob Dorsey, president of the Aroostook Partnership, an economic development group with about 100 member companies.
Dorsey said he supported LD 580, a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, that would prohibit mining on public lands and address a number of water quality concerns, but still allow open pit mining.
“The mining industry would be very beneficial to Aroostook County,” Dorsey said, arguing that it would draw higher paying jobs, additional tax revenues and spin-off investment.
Strong regulations could “protect Maine’s natural environment but allow this industry to be done safely,” Dorsey said.