AUGUSTA — The Maine Board of Environmental Protection endorsed a major rewrite of mining regulations on Thursday despite opposition from critics who warned the rules were still inadequate to protect public health and natural resources.

The provisionally adopted mining rules now go to the Legislature for approval – a process guaranteed to encounter strong pushback from environmental organizations that have successfully defeated previous attempts.

Officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have said the changes are needed to address inconsistencies between existing rules and statutes that could prevent the department from thoroughly reviewing an application for a mining permit. A state law passed in 2012 directs the DEP to adopt rules governing Maine’s long-dormant mineral mining industry; however, lawmakers have rejected several versions of those rules, creating a sort of regulatory limbo.

The proposal that won unanimous support Thursday from the Board of Environmental Protection – the department’s rulemaking body – would create a multi-tiered review process for applications to explore an area for minerals as well as to begin mining operations.

The rules would require mining operators to provide “financial assurance” to cover the costs of closing the mine and any environmental incidents. Additionally, the proposal would prohibit mine operators from storing mining waste underwater for long periods after closure.

But opponents said the proposed rules will put at risk the health of lakes, rivers and coastal marshes – and by extension the tourism economy – by allowing mining under water bodies. And while opponents said progress has been made over earlier versions, they still question the feasibility of allowing mine operators to create temporary mine waste storage units covered with water that would have to be drained and cleaned up after mine closure.

“This is a good step in the right direction but we’re not there yet,” said Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We still strongly oppose the rules and don’t believe they will protect Mainers from having to pay to clean up a major disaster and that they protect water quality.”

This story will be updated.

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