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State officials deliberate rezoning request for proposed mine

Jeremy Ouellette, vice president of project development at Wolfden Resources, gives a brief presentation on the company's proposed mining project in northern Penobscot County at a public hearing in Millinocket.
Kaitlyn Budion
Maine Public
Jeremy Ouellette, vice president of project development at Wolfden Resources, gives a brief presentation on the company's proposed mining project in northern Penobscot County at a public hearing in Millinocket.

After three days of hearings in Millinocket, the Land Use Planning Commission will deliberate on the next steps for a proposed metallic mineral mine project at Pickett Mountain. The commission heard from the mining company, opponents and members of the public.

And in what is seen as the first test of Maine's strict mining regulations, the panel will next decide on whether to rezone nearly 400 acres in the Katahdin region of Penobscot county.

Ron Little, president of Ontario-based Wolfden Resources, says the company is prepared to reach Maine's high bar for mining.

"Nobody has built a mine to this standard anywhere in the world, but we will," Little said.

Supporters say the mine will bring much-needed jobs and industry to the region, while opponents argue it will pollute the iconic Maine woods and waters, damaging land with cultural significance to Maine's native tribes and the area's growing outdoor tourism industry.

Wolfden owns more than seven thousand acres of land in the area, but will use less than 400 acres for the project. Located north of Patten near Route 11, the site neighbors Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The land also borders several state heritage fish waters, which home salmon and brook trout.

The rezoning application alone has been controversial. Wolfden withdrew its first application two years ago, after the commission indicated it would reject it. After the company re-applied, several groups came out in opposition to the project, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Penobscot Nation.

The groups were then granted intervenor status, which allowed them to present their own witnesses and question Wolfden leadership at this week's hearing

Wolfden focused much of its time laying out a plan for preventing pollution, and meeting Maine's strict permitting standards.

"The goal is to maintain what's happening in the normal course of events, in the natural environment," said Lisa Turner.

Turner and other company officials say that any water used in the mining operation can be filtered and released back into the environment without any acid mine discharge.

But opposing experts say Wolfden's scientists are taking an overly optimistic view of the situation.

"I feel that it's nearly certain that acid mine drainage will develop," said Ann Maest, a geochemist who spoke on behalf of the opposition.

She says with any mine there will be some level of pollution, and the watershed won't be able to neutralize any chemical discharge from the mine.

On procedural grounds, opposing lawyers argued that Wolfden can and should do more tests to prove beyond any doubt that it can live up to its promises.

But Wolfden officials argue that all of those questions will be answered during the in-depth permitting process.

Commission Chair Everett Worcester admitted that since this is the first mine application submitted under the new regulations, it's hard to judge what exactly is necessary to approve the rezoning request.

"I get the feeling that if you're held to these high standards but you never get to them because this commission never moves on to give it to the DEP to run through the process to see what might happen, it's kind of like a catch-22," Worcester said.

Public testimony was evenly split. Supporters, including Rebecca Phillips of nearby Patten, talked about the need for jobs in the area and said Wolfden should be allowed to progress into the environmental permitting process.

"They wrote the law, let's give it a chance, let's test it," Phillips said. "There will be many opportunities to discuss this at a later date."

Opponents countered that the jobs aren't guaranteed, and the risk to the pristine environment is too high.

Mary Alice Mowry, another Patten resident, says Wolfden is just the latest company to come to town and promise the world.

"Only to leave the people in the region even more empty-handed and disillusioned by unfulfilled promises to bring back the good old days," she said.

There will be one final evening of public comment on Monday, at 6:30 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Written comment on the rezoning request will be accepted until Thursday, November 2.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.