BY NORTH CAIRN
Portland Press Herald
The Natural Resources Council of Maine on Thursday renewed its attack on the Department of Environmental Protection’s selection of an out-of-state contractor to help modernize Maine’s mining rules, alleging that both the contractor and the DEP had “misrepresented” the company’s credentials, experience and ties to the mining industry.
The council’s criticism of North Jackson Co., of Marquette, Mich., takes aim at the company’s links to large-scale mining operations, its client list — which includes worldwide mining companies — and its claim that it had been involved in guiding the state of Michigan in a similar revision of mining rules. North Jackson was the only company to bid on the $175,000 contract, which was awarded to the Michigan firm.
The Legislature passed a law last year directing the DEP to rewrite the state’s mining rules. There are no active mines in Maine, but one landowner, J.D. Irving, has expressed interest in mining the gold, silver and copper deposits believed to lie under Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
In announcing the choice of North Jackson last month, the DEP said the company was chosen “because they have experience not only with mineral mining activities through their consulting work, they also helped Michigan — a state with similar climatic conditions to Maine — with a comparable mining rule updating process.”
However, Pete Didisheim, the council’s advocacy director, said the description of North Jackson’s experience in Michigan rule revisions “stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.”
Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the DEP, defended the agency’s selection of North Jackson but said DEP officials “don’t want to get into a point-counterpoint” exchange about the council’s allegations.
“We feel fully confident with the contractor,” she said, adding that the department is committed to a process that will rely on “sound science and current best practices.”
Michigan created a working group of state officials, mining representatives, environmentalists, landowners, legislators and others to revise that state’s mining rules in 2005-06. A three-page list of the Michigan group participants, distributed by Didisheim, does not include North Jackson.
One member of the group, Marvin Roberson, a forest ecologist with the Sierra Club, said in a phone interview Thursday that he attended all 28 of the group’s meetings. He said North Jackson was “not at the table” for any of them.
Dan Wiitala, North Jackson’s chief financial officer, confirmed that North Jackson itself did not participate directly in the Michigan work. He said that an engineer who did participate, and was representing a mining company at the time, has since been hired by North Jackson as a subcontractor to work on the Maine project.
It was on the strength of that engineer’s involvement in the Michigan job that North Jackson presented itself as an experienced bidder for the Maine work, Wiitala said.
The engineer, John Meier, participated in the Michigan work on behalf of Cleveland Cliff, Inc., a leading producer of iron ore pellets for the steel industry. Meier could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Wiitala also expressed surprise that no other companies had bid on the Maine job. He said if he had known there would be no competition, “I would have submitted a higher bid.”
In the proposal it submitted to the DEP, North Jackson listed several of its clients in the mining industry. They include Rio Tinto, a British multinational metals and mining corporation; Cliffs Mining Services, a Fortune 500 multinational company; Orvana Resources, a gold and copper mining company with projects in Spain, Bolivia and Michigan; and Tilden/Empire Iron Mine of Marquette, Mich.
“This firm is a captive contractor beholden to some of the world’s largest mining companies,” Didisheim wrote in a letter delivered Thursday to DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho.
No company has applied for a mining permit in Maine since the state adopted its present mining rules in 1991. J.D. Irving, the Bald Mountain landowner, has said it could support 700 jobs with a mine on its Aroostook County property.
Didisheim said the Maine rules should be rewritten by DEP technical and professional staff, with support from other state agencies who have expertise in geology, wildlife and other relevant fields.
The use of North Jackson would give “too much influence to mining interests and not enough opportunity for Maine people to participate in drafting rules that could result in widespread water pollution and massive financial cleanup costs for the state if the public’s interests are not protected,” Didisheim said.
DePoy-Warren, the DEP spokeswoman, said the agency “has every confidence in our process,” and a record of involving the public and doing its work openly.
A public meeting on the mining rules is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday at the DEP Response Training Room, 4 Blossom Lane, Augusta.
“And we welcome voices at the table who will be constructive — constructive and not obstructive,” DePoy-Warren said.