A mining statute to relax our laws and attract mining to Maine was rushed through the Maine Legislature in 2012. The Legislature last year rejected weak rules to implement the law because they failed to adequately protect our watersheds or Maine taxpayers.
Similar rules are now before the Legislature. Yet again, we have before us the same problems that warranted the rules’ rejection last year: the high risk of sulfuric acid and heavy metals poisoning our watersheds and the lack of financial protection for Maine taxpayers who would be left with the bill for staggering clean-up costs.
The Legislature must again reject these rules and stand up for our environment and the natural resources-based economy, public health and Maine brand that relies on its strength. The rules fail to protect against pollution, and, if they go into effect, we can expect to see widespread copper mining throughout Maine — and in a risky manner that threatens our lakes, drinking water and aquatic life, including iconic Maine species like brook trout.
We know that Maine is attractive to mining interests because of its geology and the potential for the discovery of important mineral deposits. In Aroostook County, J.D. Irving is eyeing Bald Mountain for mining. In fact, J.D. Irving has been the driving force behind weakening Maine’s mining rules. But there are also many other potential mining sites throughout Maine.
Our lakes would be targets for mining under these rules, since they would allow mining under any Maine lake. Maine lakes support 52,000 jobs and generate $3.5 billion in annual economic activity. These rules would put that, along with our drinking water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities at risk.
The history of metal mining is dismal. Large watersheds have been permanently polluted with mine wastes, and the public left with billions of dollars in clean-up costs. Maine taxpayers already have inherited the ongoing clean-up costs of the Callahan Mine in Brooksville that closed in the 1970s.
And even up-to-date mines have catastrophic failures. The Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia suffered a massive tailings dam failure last year, shortly after mining advocates assured Maine legislators about the safety of modern mines.
The process of extracting minerals from ores can create sulfuric acid that enters ground and surface waters. This phenomenon, called acid mine drainage, devastates water quality and aquatic life as it leaches heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, copper and zinc from rock. Maine’s wet conditions and its sulfide-rich rich ore make it particularly susceptible to acid mine drainage.
With our rainfall, frozen winters, high ground waters and fractured geology, it’s highly likely that acid and other metallic contaminants eventually will escape, either through the groundwater or because of major accidents. Contaminated ground water can rise to springs and surface streams years and years later.
Metallic mines leave behind large tailings ponds to store waste products. They need expensive maintenance and water treatment hundreds of years after the mine is closed. They can’t simply be drained and covered. Toxic leaching can continue for centuries, depending on the chemistry of the particular site. Under the proposed rules, we risk allowing these toxic disposal ponds to scar Maine’s landscape indefinitely.
Mining industry representatives have asserted that new technologies could control acid pollution and mine waste, but have provided no evidence. The industry failed to meet its burden of proving these mining rules will protect Maine. We agree with the retired Department of Environmental Protection senior geologist who testified, “I am loathe to have Maine used as a guinea pig in such a venture.”
Maine needs rules that protect our clean water and taxpayers; these rules are too weak. Lawyers and consultants for the mining industry drafted too much of them.
If mining companies want to mine in Maine, they need to do so in a manner that protects our tourism, fishing and guiding industries that depend on clean water and healthy wildlife. These proposed rules won’t do that.
The Legislature should therefore reject these proposed mining rules. Look at West Virginia and other mining states. Once the damage is done, we cannot turn back the clock.
Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, is a retired Maine District Court judge and a member of the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden, is a fisherman, executive director of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine and the lead Republican on the Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources.