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Proposal from Maine DEP could reduce obstacles for lithium mine

Pieces of kunzite, a variety of the lithium-bearing crystals found in Newry, for sale at the Rock & Art Shop in Bar Harbor.
Kate Cough
The Maine Monitor
Pieces of kunzite, a variety of the lithium-bearing crystals found in Newry, for sale at the Rock & Art Shop in Bar Harbor.

A proposal from state environmental regulators could open the door to lithium mining in western Maine at a time when the metal is in high demand for rechargeable batteries and high-tech devices.

But the proposed rules received mixed reviews from some environmental organizations on Monday as lawmakers consider whether to sign-off on the proposal.

It's been about two years since news first emerged that land in Newry could potentially hold one of the world's most valuable lithium deposits. The owners of the land on Plumbago Mountain, have said the deposit contains rare, high-grade lithiumthat is used to make "scientific glass" such as cellphone and computer screens. But lithium is also a key component of rechargeable batteries such as the type used in electric vehicles, and some accounts have pegged the value of the western Maine deposit at more than $1 billion.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection initially said any effort to extract the lithium would have to meet Maine's stringent metallic mining rules. Those rules were approved by lawmakers seven years ago as a way to protect Maine — which is home to valuable deposits of silver, nickel, gold and other metals — from "acid rock drainage" and other toxic remnants of metallic mining.

But the Freemans and their supporters argue that the type of mineral deposit in which the lithium is located, spodumene, does not pose risks of acid-rock drainage. And now, the department is proposing that mining for lithium and other elements located in such rock be regulated like quarrying for gravel or granite as long as it is encased in a type of rock that won’t create toxic runoff.

Nick Bennett, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine who was heavily involved in development of the existing metallic mining regulations, told lawmakers on Monday that he supports the proposal. Bennett said that in order to be exempt, the Freeman's mine and any other would have to prove through testing that it won't cause the type of pollution typically associated with gold, silver and other metallic mines.

"If you show that you don't have a risk for acid-mine drainage or metal leaching or radioactive contamination, then you can use an open pit method to extract the material, just like we would let you use an open-pit method to extract granite or gravel," Bennett said.

But Eliza Townsend, Maine conservation policy director for the Appalachian Mountain Club, urged lawmakers to delay approving the DEP's proposed rules in order to study the issue more. While Townsend said the proposed rules have improved during the department's rulemaking process, Townsend asked lawmakers to direct the DEP to double the number of tests required per acre and, among other things, to require mines to meet "dark skies" lighting restrictions aimed at preventing light pollution.

"And this is an issue with which Maine has no previous experience," Townsend said. "The rules apply statewide. They will have profound impacts on both the environment and human health. And we urge you to take the time to get them right."

Several members of the public also warned that a large, open-pit mine could ruin an area of the western Maine mountains known for its natural beauty. They also criticized the committee for announcing Monday's public hearing just days before it was held.

Members of the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee are expected to discuss the proposed rules on Wednesday.