AUGUSTA – A legislative committee gave near-unanimous support Wednesday to a proposed overhaul of Maine’s mining regulations that has also won the support of many of the state’s environmental organizations.
The proposal would ban open-pit mining as well as operations on state-owned public lands, in flood plains and under lakes, rivers or ponds. The bill would also prohibit underwater storage of mine waste and would require mining companies to create a trust fund large enough to cover the costs of cleaning up or treating any environmental contamination on a site for at least 100 years after closure of the mine.
The bill, L.D. 820, has been the subject of months of work by lawmakers, environmental advocates and representatives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. If passed by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage, the bill would end a years-long stalemate that left the state’s mining rules in limbo and forced lawmakers as well as environmental regulators to return to the subject year after year.
The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-1 – with one lawmaker absent – in support of the bill, which will now go to the House and Senate floors for consideration.
“This is what many of us and many environmental organizations have been asking for all along,” said Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “Support for these good amendments to the mining statute is not a switch in our position or our values but rather an advancement of that goal, that is stronger rules and protections for metallic mining in Maine that might be allowed in the future.”
The compromise on L.D. 820 received support from a broad range of environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and the Environmental Priorities Coalition. The bill sponsor is Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, the former long-time leader of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Yet a core group of vocal activists had been sharply critical of the environmental groups, claiming the bill didn’t do enough to protect groundwater or provide sufficient “financial assurance” to cover the costs of an environmental catastrophe. They also questioned whether large-scale metallic mining can ever be done safely in Maine, a high-precipitation state whose tourism industry is built around a healthy environment.
Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, cited those concerns and others Wednesday before casting the solitary dissenting vote against the bill out of the 12 lawmakers present.
“I felt five years ago – when we passed a statute that we are now amending with L.D. 820 – that it was a bad policy choice then, and I still feel like it is a bad policy choice now,” said Harlow, one of only two lawmakers who have served on committee since the mining debate began in 2012.
Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner at the DEP, said the department supported the measure.
“We feel it is a reasonable outcome,” Loyzim said. “It addresses the concerns that have been raised over the last several years. It is very protective but not completely prohibitive.”
The five-year debate over mining in Maine was sparked by interest from the J.D. Irving Ltd. – the New Brunswick company with major land holdings in Maine – in mining for gold, silver and other valuable metals under Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. While supporters claimed a Bald Mountain mine would bring much-needed jobs and economic development to the region, opponents warned that the natural arsenic in the ground as well as the resulting “acid mine drainage” from mining operations would threaten the lakes, rivers and streams that are key to the area’s nature-based economy.
J.D. Irving has since stepped back – publicly, at least – from the Bald Mountain project, and several people suggested Wednesday that the ban on open-pit mining and other environmental regulations contained in the bill would likely make mining the site unfeasible.
“There are certainly places in Maine where, under this, you can mine,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who played a key role in crafting the bill and subsequent amendments. But Bennett said he believes Bald Mountain is “too dangerous to mine under any circumstances” and he said the proposed rules are adequately protective of other potential mining operations.
“This is a very strict set of laws that will require mining companies to jump through a lot of hoops and meet very stringent regulations,” Bennett said.
Lew Kingsbury, a Pittston retiree who has been heavily involved in the mining debate for years, was among the vocal critics of earlier renditions of L.D. 820. But he said the version endorsed by the committee on Wednesday addressed his top concerns, including by banning open-pit mines, underwater storage of mine waste – also called “wet mine waste” – as well as tailings ponds.
“I believe with those four things in place, mining within a massive sulfide deposit will be nearly impossible,” Kingsbury said.