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Politics

Maine Legislators to Once Again Consider New Mining Rules

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Maine Public/file
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Lawmakers in the Maine House chamber.

The Maine Board of Environmental Protection has voted unanimously to adopt controversial new mining rules for the state.

The Legislature has twice rejected similar proposals, and will have the final word on these, as well. The rules are under fire from environmental groups, tribal members and others who say they are still not protective of public health or water quality and could leave taxpayers on the hook for hefty clean-up costs.

Staff at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say the new rules are needed to address gaps and inconsistencies between existing rules and statutes. For months, they’ve been working to set up a review process for potential mining operations and to try to address public concerns along the way.

“These are the most stringent that we’ve proposed. They are far more comprehensive. And they’re certainly substantially more restrictive than the rules that are currently in effect for metallic mining in Maine,” says Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner of the Maine DEP.

Loyzim says the department appreciates the feedback it has received from the public. She says of the nearly 500 comments collected, only one person did not express outright opposition.

Much of the concern is around the concept of “financial assurance” and a potential mining catastrophe. Critics say the rules don’t go far enough to require mining operators to have substantial cash on hand to deal with related clean-up costs, and they fear taxpayers could get stuck with the bill.

“That’s really important. It’s just not fair to make Maine people clean up a mining disaster for a company that goes bankrupt. It’s just not fair and at the Natural Resources Council of Maine we’ll do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” says Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

But Loyzim says the rules do require any permit applicant to cover any and all possible contamination that could result from their operations.

“Given the scale of potential operations that could be $150 million or significantly more than that,” she says.

Bennett says the scale of the problem could amount to more like $500 million or even $1 billion to clean up, and that’s why he thinks there’s a problem.

The proposed rules would allow metallic mining on state-owned public lands, in floodplains and under Maine’s lakes, rivers, streams and coastal wetlands. And that’s another big red flag for opponents.

“Our primary concerns are the water quality and other impacts on fish habitat,” says Jeff Reardon of Manchester, who works for Trout Unlimited.

Metallic mining of copper, zinc and gold creates sulphuric acid, which runs off into ground and surface water and kills fish and other aquatic life. Reardon wants to see more safeguards for lakes, ponds and rivers that are home to brook trout, landlocked salmon and other species.

And open-pit mining, which has been proposed by Canada-based J.D. Irving for Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, leaves large toxic acid ponds.

In late November, thousands of migrating snow geese perished after they landed on one such pond in Butte, Montana. The 700-acre Berkeley Pit is the site of a former copper mine now submerged underwater.

The proposed rules will now go before the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee for consideration in the next several weeks.