Lawmakers tell DEP to strengthen mining rules, protect waters and taxpayers

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

April 17th, 2014 

Western Mountains of Maine photo by Ramona du Hoxu

Western Mountains of Maine photo by Ramona du Hoxu

The Legislature voted to reject inadequate proposed mining rules and gave final approval Wednesday to a measure that directs the Department of Environmental Protection to draft rules that will protect Maine’s environment and taxpayers.

The Senate voted unanimously on a resolve, which requires new rules to be rewritten and submitted to the Legislature by Feb. 1, 2016. It now goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature.

“We must make sure we protect the waters of Maine. If we are to have mining in Maine, we must make sure it protects our groundwater, lakes and other waterways. If we are to have mining in Maine, we must make sure that taxpayers are not saddled with clean-up costs as they have been in the past,” said Rep. Joan Welsh, the House chair of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee.

The rejected rules would allow mines that are so polluting that they would require treatment of toxic wastewater in perpetuity. They would also allow the possibility of the spread of polluted groundwater and mines to be located on public land and next to lakes and rivers.

“The proposed rules would not have protected Maine’s rivers, lakes, streams or groundwater from arsenic and sulfuric acid pollution, and the rules would have left Maine people paying huge sums to clean-up mining sites long after a mine had been shut down.

“The rules would have allowed mines that are so polluting, they would have required treatment of toxic wastewater for hundreds or even thousands of years. No company lasts this long, and periodic treatment plant failures are inevitable. Allowing such dangerous mines is a recipe for environmental disasters that Maine citizens will pay to clean up.

“The rules would have allowed unlimited pollution of groundwater under the ‘mining area,’ a term that was poorly defined and could have included very large areas of land. Polluted groundwater inevitably spreads to surface water, but the rules did not require ‘mining areas’ to be as small as possible to limit the spread of pollution.

“The rules would have allowed construction of mines on or under many areas of public land, including those purchased with voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program. Mainers didn’t pay to conserve beautiful parts of our state only to have them turned into mines.

“The rules also would have allowed mines under or next to the vast majority of Maine’s lakes and most pristine rivers. Maine’s beautiful rivers and lakes are a huge part of Maine’s brand and economy. Maine lakes alone generate $3.5 billion per year for our economy and support 52,000 jobs.”

“Lawmakers took the right action for our rivers, lakes and streams, and for Maine people, by rejecting these rules and directing the Maine DEP to go back to the drawing board,” said Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Background

In the final weeks of the 2012 legislative session, the Maine Legislature passed a bill (LD 1853) to weaken Maine’s 1991 mining regulations at the request of J.D. Irving, a huge Canadian conglomerate and the largest landowner in Maine. Most of the discussion of mining in Maine has focused on Bald Mountain, owned by J.D. Irving, in central Aroostook County. Irving has proposed to build a large, open-pit mine there. The impacts on the Bald Mountain area could be enormous. Mining pollution would likely drain into the Fish River and the Fish River Chain of Lakes, which provide some of the best brook trout fishing in the country.

But the risk of metal mining pollution extends beyond Bald Mountain. There are many other places in Maine where companies may want to mine. Mining operations involving sulfide deposits, which are present in Maine, create huge pollution problems. The waste rock (rock that contains no valuable ore), and the tailings (which are the leftover materials after ore has been removed from rock) react with air and water to form sulfuric acid. This acid gets into ground and surface waters, leaching out toxic heavy metals from the surrounding rock. This destroys water quality and aquatic life and is called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). It is a serious problem, often afflicting large areas around sulfide mining operations.

Despite the well-documented dangers of metal mining, the 2012 mining bill (LD 1853) directed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to rewrite and weaken existing protective rules that govern mining operations. DEP “outsourced” development of the draft rules to a mining industry contractor. Predictably, these draft rules were weak. The Board of Environmental Protection (BEP), the citizen board that oversaw the mining rulemaking process, made them even weaker, despite overwhelming public testimony in favor of more protective rules. LD 1772 required DEP to come back to the legislature by February 2016 with new proposed rules

Concern about open-pit mining has focused on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, but there are significant mineral deposits in Franklin, Hancock, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties that could also attract the interest of the mining industry.

Maine taxpayers have been stuck with mine clean-up costs before. The Callahan Mine in Brooksville hasn’t operated since 1972, but taxpayers are still paying for the cleanup.

Protecting Maine from the risks of metallic mineral mining is a top environmental priority for 2014.The Environmental Priorities Coalition, which includes 28 environmental, conservation and public health organizations, identified strong mining rules among its key legislative issues for 2014.