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Controversial northern Maine mining proposal still percolating as company courts town officials

mine pickett mtn.jpg
Gabor Degre
/
BDN
Jeff Swallow, left, and Tyler Snelgrove with Downing Drilling of Quebec prepare to restart the drill while working near Pickett Mountain north of Patten on March 7, 2018.

Representatives from a Canadian mining company have been meeting quietly with local officials in far northern Maine, hoping to gain support for a controversial proposal that would test the state’s stringent new mining regulations.

Last fall, environmental groups cheered when Wolfden Resources opted to withdraw a rezoning application rather than face possible rejection by the state planning commission that oversees development throughout much of rural Maine. But Wolfden pledged at the time to be back with a revised application. And since then, company representatives have been meeting with boards of selectmen and other elected officials in a handful of towns near the potential mine site in northern Penobscot County.

But those meetings have raised concerns among some local residents. And environmental groups are gearing up for another potential fight against a metallic mining project that they fear could pollute lakes, streams and groundwater despite the state adopting some of the nation’s most stringent environmental regulations for mining.

"Nothing's perfect, ok?” Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told about 50 people attending a special meeting in Patten last month. “All mines pollute."

Patten is one of several local towns in the northern portion of the Katahdin Valley where Wolfden officials have been discussing potential partnerships – presumably with an eye toward locating key aspects of the mining operation within those towns. Wolfden is teeing up to test a 5-year-old state mining law that imposes some of the nation's strictest environmental standards. Wolfden estimates that veins of rock beneath Pickett Mountain contain more than $1 billion of minable zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold -- and extracting those metals would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for workers and surrounding towns.

“Wolfden is very interested in attempting to permit the deposit but will not attempt without prior agreement by the local residents that the project would impact the most,” the company stated in a four-page pamphlet distributed at the Patten meeting. “We have proposed an ordinance in the surrounding towns that outlines the regulations around metallic mineral mining as well as allows the towns to make decisions on a nearby mining project in a staged . . . and transparent manner.”

Jeremy Ouellette, vice president for project development at Ontario-based Wolfden, told Patten residents gathered in the town garage that the project would create 270 to 300 jobs with an average earning of $80,000 to $90,000.

“As I mentioned earlier, these are high-paying jobs,” Ouellette said.

That prospect clearly appealed to some residents as well as members of the Patten Board of Selectmen that have apparently been discussing an ordinance or “host community benefit” agreement with Wolfden.

“We are a very low- to moderate-income community and most of the surrounding communities are that way,” select board member Becky Phillips said. “We need industry up here. We have an aging population and if we don’t bring population, we are going to die on the vine.”

But Wolfden failed to clear a zoning hurdle that precedes the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's more rigorous permitting process. And there's strong skepticism among some groups about the company's promises on jobs and environmental safeguards.

Bennett, who was heavily involved on behalf of NRCM during the negotiations over Maine’s 2017 mining regulations, said Wolfden lacks the track record and financial resources to prove it can meet them.

"And I'm telling you as someone with some experience in this that the initial indications of whether the company can do this are poor,” Bennett said.

The meeting in Patten is part of a strategic shift for Wolfden.

Last October, the company withdrew a rezoning application that staff at the Land Use Planning Commission said contained too many errors and inconsistencies. A revised application is likely coming. But in the meantime, Wolfden has been meeting with officials in Patten, Staceyville. Hersey and other towns asking for local ordinances that support the mine.

Wolfden isn't discussing specifics, at least not publicly. But in an October letter to the Land Use Planning Commission it mentions seeking alternative locations -- presumably outside of the commission's jurisdiction -- for facilities that separate out metals and store the environmentally problematic waste rock.

MaryAlice Mowry, a Patten planning board member who's been keeping tabs on Wolfden's dealings with her town’s Board of Selectmen, pushed for last month’s meeting because she felt there wasn’t enough public discussion on all sides of the issue.

"A lot of people still think this is a done deal,” Mowry said in a phone interview this week. Mowry said there is no requirement that towns endorse Wolfden's plans. But she fears local officials feel pressured to say yes now -- or else risk losing out on valuable community benefits.

"I'm very concerned that this company is trying to try to pit our communities against each other in this and make this be something that has to keep moving quickly when in fact a decision from a municipality, we're years off from when all of the things have to happen,” Mowry said.

Ouelette of Wolfden did not respond to interview requests. But during Patten's meeting, he told Mowry that the company is talking with multiple towns before committing to spend $15 to $20 million on more studies.

“We are absolutely working with the different communities,” Ouellette said. “That's not to say we are not continuing to work in Patten because we need that optionality. We're not looking for a decision today What we're looking for is a discussion."

At 1,750 feet tall, Mount Pickett is one-third the size of nearby Mount Katahdin, which draws hikers and visitors from around the globe. But Pickett Mountain has been on mining company radars since geologists identified the metal-rich deposits in the late 70s. Wolfden now estimates the Pickett Mountain deposit could yield nearly $1.4 billion in cash flow from the mine.

This corner of northern Maine just east of Baxter State Park is also dotted with lakes, ponds and small streams filled with wild, native brook trout and landlocked salmon. But those fisheries could be threatened by the toxic byproduct, known as acid mine drainage, that occurs naturally when this type of long-buried rock is exposed to water and oxygen.

“I worked in fish-wildlife and environmental protection for 30-plus years. I've seen some things go right, I've seen a lot of things go wrong,” said Brian Burger, a resident of Moro Plantation which border the township where the mine would be located.

Burger hasn't taken a position on the Wolfden mine. But during his career working around Pennsylvania's mining sector, Burger said he's seen streams running so "hot" with acid mine drainage that the water turns white, wiping out everything in them. Avoiding such situations, he said, requires constant, daily vigilance.

“I’m not trying to throw arrows in any directions,’ Burger said. “Just we’ve got a lot ahead of us and I hope we can all keep talking about it with cool heads.”

Ouellette acknowledged that historic mining practices have a well-deserved "black eye" but says Wolfden is prepared to meet Maine's stringent water-quality standards.

Since the meeting, Mowry says there's been more discussion about slowing the process down in Patten. She's also heard another community's select board is quietly pushing ahead, though, and so she gives Patten's board "great kudos" for allowing residents to hear from and ask questions of representatives from both sides of the issue.