A proposal to open Maine’s first, large-scale metallic mining operation in decades is moving forward despite objections from an environmental group and other critics.

Wolfden Resources, an Ontario-based company, is seeking to rezone 528 acres in northern Maine outside of Patten in order to mine for copper, zinc, silver and other valuable metals. Wolfden’s proposal will be the first test of a 3-year-old state law that set tough standards for metallic mines while opening the door to such large-scale operations in Maine.

The view from Mount Chase, near land purchased by Wolfden Resources Corp.  Press Herald file photo

On Wednesday, staff with the Land Use Planning Commission outlined plans to begin reviewing the proposal and hold a site visit with commissioners and a public hearing on the application later this year. The rezoning request with the commission, which oversees planning and development on Maine’s 10 million acres of unincorporated lands, is a first step before the more exhaustive permit review by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

A Wolfden representative could not be reached for an interview on Wednesday. But in a statement issued after commission staff deemed the application was complete enough to begin the review, company officials called the step “another positive milestone in the process of developing a high-margin polymetallic operation at Pickett Mountain.

“We have resumed our summer exploration program that includes a minimum of 5,000 meters of drilling focused on adding to our total mineral resource,” Ron Little, president and CEO of Wolfden, said in the statement. “In addition, we have also commenced gathering environmental and technical data that will supplement more detailed baseline and feasibility studies required for a mining permit application.”

Located 10 to 15 miles north of Patten, Pickett Mountain is nestled among the lakes, ponds, streams and commercial forests of northern Penobscot and southern Aroostook counties. Wolfden purchased the property as part of a nearly 7,000-acre acquisition in 2017, a few months after state lawmakers approved the new mining law following a contentious, years-long debate.

Wolfden’s rezoning application states that the mining process at Pickett Mountain will involving drilling and blasting underground in order to obtain “manageable size fragments” for transport to the surface. On-site crushing/grinding facilities will process up to 1,000 tons of material per day in order to separate the valuable materials from the waste rock or tailings.

The valuable metals will then be transported to smelters outside of Maine. But the de-watered waste will be stored in a lined “tailings management facility” on site that could eventually grow to 78 acres in size. Water used in the crushing and grinding process will be recirculated and combined with fresh water, but “none of these waters will be released to the environment,” the application reads.

Management of those tailings, the wastewater and any exposed rock will be heavily scrutinized by opponents and the DEP because mining sulfide deposits like the one at Pickett Mountain can cause acidic runoff that can poison surface or groundwater sources.

Geologists discovered the ore deposits under Pickett Mountain – formerly known as the “Mount Chase deposit” – roughly 40 years ago, but the site has never been mined commercially in large part because of the previous state law. Wolfden officials claim the deposits of copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold make Pickett Mountain “one of the highest grade undeveloped polymetallic massive sulphide deposits in North America.”

Company officials estimate the mine will create dozens of good-paying jobs and inject additional money into the economies of the surrounding rural towns.

But the project is already drawing scrutiny because of the parcel’s proximity to Baxter State Park and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and its location among the lakes, rivers and forests that are important to outdoor recreation.

In public comments filed with the Land Use Planning Commission, the Natural Resources Council of Maine urged commission staff to reject the rezoning request at this early stage in the process. The council argued that Wolfden had failed to respond to commission staff questions for more information on wastewater treatment, management of mine waste or “tailings,” and the company’s financial capacity to operate the mine as well as cover any costs related to a mining disaster.

“The continued failure to provide accurate, timely information is quite disconcerting given the dangers associated with metal mining,” council staff scientist Nick Bennett wrote. “The mining industry is notorious for not providing timely and accurate information about its environmental impacts even though mining’s serious risks make this information necessary.”

Another commenter, Augusta resident William Bridgeo, said the lakes and rivers of that area “continue to be some of the best brook trout and landlocked salmon fisheries I have experienced” since he began fishing in his native Aroostook County in the 1950s. Yet the topic of fisheries occupies just three paragraphs in Wolfden’s application, said Bridgeo, who currently serves as Augusta city manager.

“It is uncontestable that such trout and salmon fisheries are fragile natural assets and must be cherished and protected,” Bridgeo wrote. “I spoke at a symposium on polluted rivers in Montana and while there witnessed firsthand the devastation that occurred as a result of poor mining regulation. I hope never to see that in this great state.”

Wolfden has cited the 2017 law change as the reason why it opted to purchase nearly 7,000 acres around Pickett Mountain and explore the site’s ore deposits for development.

The Maine Legislature passed the massive overhaul of Maine’s mining regulations after years of debate focused largely on another deposit located on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

Supporters of the 2017 law contend it provides strong protections against pollution by, among other things, prohibiting larger open-pit mines and the underwater storage of mine waste. Critics said the law did not go far enough, however, to protect groundwater and nearby surface waters from the acidic runoff that can result from metallic mining in sulfide deposits.

Many of those environmental issues will be handled by the Maine DEP during the permitting stage rather than the Land Use Planning Commission during the rezoning process.

Commissioners are tentatively slated to visit the site in mid-October with a public hearing to follow later in the year. Under a timeline provided by staff on Wednesday, commissioners could be asked to vote on the rezoning application early next year.

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