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Pembroke will soon vote on industrial-scale mining ban

Pembroke is the site
Ryan Malagara
DEVI Productions
Wolfden Resource Corporation has eyed Pembroke as the site for its "Big Silver" mining project.

Residents of Pembroke will gather next week to decide the future of industrial-scale mining in their small, Down East community.

They'll vote on an ordinance that was drafted in response to initial exploration by a Canadian-based company that wants to mine the region for silver.

Ontario-based Wolfden Resources Corporation has been eyeing Pembroke as the site of a mining project known as "Big Silver." Wolfden says it owns the mineral rights for more than 800 acres there and has begun exploratory drilling in the region.

The project is in the preliminary stages, and many details are unclear. But it's enough to scare some community members, who worry that large-scale mining projects might impact their fresh water supply and nearby Cobscook Bay.

"Do the benefits of what a mine would bring to the community outweigh the risk of us losing our water supply indefinitely? No, it doesn't," said Pembroke resident and small family farmer Katherine Swann, who serves as president of Friends of Cobscook Bay, a community group that's leading the effort to ban industrial-scale mining through the proposed ordinance.

The group is most concerned about the prospect of acid mine drainage contaminating their wells and the aquifer that flows into the bay, which is home to one of the more productive scallop grounds in Maine.

"Water has really been the biggest focus," Swann said. "We've also learned about potential airborne pollutants, toxins, noise and all the added traffic and just the change of the way of life here. What it would mean to add a bunch of workers to a small town of 800 people?"

There's also the prospect of becoming the site of the first large-scale metallic mine in Maine in decades — and the first since the state legislature enacted new mining laws back in 2017.

Though they're considered some of the toughest large-scale mining regulations in the country, Swann said there's some trepidation about being the site of the first large metal mine if Wolfden eventually received the necessary permits.

"We would essentially become the guinea pig for the state to test these regulations," Swann said. "How we can feel comfortable letting that happen, where we don't know how it will overseen?"

Maine's regulations are rigorous, said Aga Dixon, an attorney with the Drummond Woodson law firm who helped draft the proposed ordinance for Pembroke. But the current law mostly deals with water management and quality issues, she said. And it doesn't address the other impacts that mining might have on small communities, such as the damage that large trucks might have on local roads or changes to the rural character of the region.

"Those are the kinds of issues that the legislature specifically did not address and expressly left for towns to manage through their home rule powers," Dixon said.

Other towns in Maine have taken steps to regulate mineral activities, including Bridgton, Mount Desert Island, Tremont and Winter Harbor, among others, Dixon added.

The proposed ordinance would ban industrial-scale metallic mineral mining operations, which it defines as any operation that extracts 10,000 or more tons of mine waste per year, has a mining area of three acres or more or extracts at least 10,000 tons of bulk sampling material during exploration.

The ordinance would allow community-scale mining, but prospective operators would have to provide advance notice to neighbors before starting any exploration activities and secure a permit for the project from the Pembroke planning board, Dixon said.

It would not regulate gravel pits or other kinds of excavations of sand, fill, gravel, clay, topsoil, peat, silt or rock.

"This is a starting point," Dixon said. "This is a place to begin the conversation and establish some local control over the question of what kind of mining activities can occur in Pembroke."

Wolfden has been trying for several years to begin mining in Maine for silver, zinc and other metallic minerals that are in high demand for clean energy products.

It bought Pickett Mountain north of Patten and submitted plans to rezone a few hundred acres to the Land Use Planning Commission two years ago.

But Wolfden withdrew those plans last fall after the LUPC signaled it would reject the proposal, due to "numerous errors, inconsistencies and omissions" in the application. Wolfden called it a "temporary setback" and vowed to push forward.

In late March, Wolfden said it was encouraged by the initial results of exploratory drilling for silver that it began last fall in Pembroke.

Company officials didn't respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. At a recent public hearing, Wolfden indicated that the ordinance would effectively make mining in Pembroke no longer profitable, Swann said.

Pembroke residents will vote next Wednesday, May 4 on the ordinance.