AUGUSTA — Several of Maine’s major environmental groups are coalescing behind a proposed rewrite of metallic mining rules after years of opposition to earlier versions sought by state regulators.

But others are urging lawmakers to impose a moratorium or an all-out ban on the industry in Maine, highlighting divisions even among mining skeptics over an issue bogged down in the Legislature for five years.

“I think the most likely thing to happen is nothing,” said Rep. Ralph Chapman, a Brooksville Democrat whose district includes two contaminated mine sites. “I would not like to see it left in this legal limbo. That is untenable.”

Lawmakers are considering seven mining-related proposals to address rules that have been in “limbo” since 2012, when the Legislature passed a mining bill but subsequently failed to agree on specific environmental regulations. While all of the proposals would apply statewide, the prospects of a gold and silver mine under Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain continues to shadow the debate as opponents urge lawmakers to adopt tough standards to protect Maine’s natural resources from mine-related pollution.

One of the proposals under consideration – a multitiered permitting process proposed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection – won unanimous support from the Maine Board of Environmental Protection in January. DEP Deputy Commissioner Melanie Loyzim described the rules as “comprehensive and very protective of public health and the environment.”

The agency’s proposal faced strong opposition, however, from dozens of interested citizens, former DEP employees and environmental groups during a roughly six-hour public hearing on Monday. Opponents talked about the dangers of acid-mine drainage, arsenic and other pollutants fouling Maine’s wild brook trout streams, scenic lakes and farm fields.

Ellery Borow, an engineer who has worked on mines, dams and other major infrastructure projects around the country, said the department’s proposal “appears to be full of loopholes, omissions, errors and misunderstandings.”

“As these rules appear to a technical expert, they seem to be written by a mining company for another mining company,” Borow told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “I am not impressed with these rules. With these rules, I am sure Maine is likely be exploited, severely so.”

DRAMATIC CHANGE

In a dramatic shift from previous years, many of the state’s most vocal environmental organizations are endorsing a bill, L.D. 820, that aims to allow mining while addressing perceived weaknesses in the DEP proposal.

The bill would prohibit mining in or under lakes, rivers, streams or wetland as well as in state parks and historic sites, on public reserved lands and within the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The measure would also prohibit contamination of groundwater outside of the mining area – and limit contamination inside the area – while requiring would-be mine developers to provide “financial assurance” to cover the costs of “a worst-case catastrophic mining event or failure.”

Environmental groups appear to have had a major hand in crafting the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Brownie Carson, a Harpswell Democrat who formerly spent more than 20 years as executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The list of organizations supporting L.D. 820 includes NRCM, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Environmental Priorities Coalition and the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Several speakers urged lawmakers to tweak L.D. 820 to ban open-pit mining and “wet mine waste” pools where contaminated rock is covered with water. Beth Ahearn with the Environmental Priorities Coalition – which includes 34 conservation, environmental and public health organizations – said with those changes “Maine would have strict and clear protections from mining pollution.”

Robert Wood with The Nature Conservancy said while the DEP’s most recent proposals “have been headed in a positive direction,” the department rules would still potentially allow mining under lakes and rivers as well as in state-owned lands. Carson’s bill and a similar measure proposed by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton and co-chairman of the committee, would address those concerns and others to protect groundwater.

SOME CONSTERNATION

But the environmental groups’ support of rules is causing some consternation in environmental circles, even with the proposed amendments to eliminate open-pit mines and wet mine waste units. And while committee members refrained from asking questions of speakers or commenting on testimony, several lawmakers acknowledged that not everyone is assured that L.D. 820 is adequately protective of the environment.

Chapman, who has been heavily involved in the mining debate, said he suspects some in the environmental community may share his concerns when they drill down into the proposal. Instead, Chapman is sponsoring bills to place a moratorium on mining permit applications and return the state to a 1991 set of rules that effectively shut down metallic mining in the state. Additionally, Chapman has proposed the establishment of Mining Advisory Panel that includes experts on metallic mining to issue recommendations for a statutory and regulatory framework.

Chapman questioned whether the “financial assurance” proposed in either L.D. 820 or the DEP proposal would be adequate because “a catastrophic failure of a mine will cost more than a company can afford to pay.”

“We would rather the company do what is right to prevent the failure,” Chapman said.

Another bill, L.D. 160, would simply prohibit all metallic mining in Maine.

In what is becoming an annual practice for some, roughly two dozen Aroostook County residents made the lengthy trip to the State House to oppose the proposed DEP rules or testify in support of the other proposals.

Many of those speakers mentioned Bald Mountain, a site roughly 35 miles west of Presque Isle owned by the Canadian forest products company J.D. Irving Ltd.

J.D. Irving sparked the debate over mining in 2012 when it sought to change Maine’s regulations to allow extraction of the significant deposits of gold, silver and other precious metals under Bald Mountain. Supporters claim the mine could support hundreds of good-paying jobs in an economically distressed region. But opponents contend the long-term risks to the region’s natural environment – and by extension the area’s tourism- and outdoor recreation-based economy – from mine pollution far outweigh any temporary jobs.

Chief Brenda Commander of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians said her tribe has hunted, fished, trapped and foraged along the St. John River for thousands of years. Today, the tribe is working to restore sea-run Atlantic salmon to the upper watershed of the river.

“These weak mining rules do not adequately address the threat of acid mine drainage, which would destroy our efforts at salmon restoration and negatively impact the environment for our children and generations to come,” Commander said. “Mining and mining exploration in Maine present substantial potential to destroy invaluable, even sacred Wabanaki resources.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

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