Maine BEP provisionally adopts mining rules despite overwhelming citizen opposition

Open pit mines, that are proposed for Bald Mt, in Maine are some of the worst to the environment.

Record Shows Opponents Outnumber Proponents:  441-2

By Ramona du Houx

On January 5, 2017 the Maine Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) voted unanimously to provisionally adopt weak rules that would govern metal mining in Maine. Because metal mining poses such a serious threat to water quality, these rules were opposed 441-2 by Maine scientists, business people, conservation groups, tribal members, and other citizens. The rules would allow metal mining on State-owned public lands, in floodplains, and under Maine’s lakes, rivers, streams, and coastal wetlands. 

The provisionally adopted mining rules now head to the State Legislature to be considered by the House and Senate, and, if approved, they would become state law. The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) tallied the comments sent to the BEP and found that 441 individuals from 188 Maine towns either testified in person at the September 15 public hearing or submitted written comments to the BEP in opposition to the proposed mining rules. Only two individuals provided comments in support of the rules. 

“Once again, Maine people are speaking up in overwhelming numbers against mining rules that won’t protect Maine’s environment or taxpayers,” said NRCM Staff Scientist Nick Bennett. “Mainers are deeply concerned about mining pollution and about having to pay to clean up mining company disasters. These rules will not protect Maine’s Clean Water or its taxpayers.”   

Mining companies seeking metals such as copper, gold, and zinc mine sulfide deposits. Mining sulfides creates sulfuric acid that leaches into waters and releases toxic heavy metals such as arsenic. This destroys water quality and aquatic life. Without adequate safeguards, metal mining could cause massive pollution in Maine, as it has at sites around the world. 

Maine's tourism industry, that welcomes 22 million people every year to the state, could be jepordized by a scared landscape and pollution. Open pit mines, that are proposed are some of the worst to the environment.

Bald Mt, in Aroostook County, above, would be scared forever by open-pit mining

"The Legislature has signaled that it expects strong mining regulations, but that is not what it would get with these BEP-approved rules,” said Jenn Burns Gray, Staff Attorney and Advocate for Maine Audubon. “Mining that occurs under poor standards in ill-considered locations would pose a serious threat to wildlife, habitat, and local natural resources with statewide value. Open-pit mining leaves large toxic acid ponds and could result in arsenic, lead, and other toxic chemicals contaminating our lakes, rivers, streams, and soil, threatening water quality and aquatic life. These are not the mining rules Maine needs or deserves." 

At its September 15 public hearing, BEP accepted comments on the draft mining rules.

There, 24 people testified against the mining rules, and the LePage Administration’s State Geologist, Robert Marvinney, was the only individual to testify in support. In addition, the BEP received hundreds of pages of comments from individuals across Maine during the comment period, which ended December 16, 2016. 

Residents from across Maine voiced strong concerns about the possibility that Canada-based J.D. Irving Ltd. will pursue an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. This site is especially dangerous due to the high levels of sulfuric acid and arsenic that could flow into pristine streams and ponds that are home to many brook trout and landlocked salmon.

Although Irving claims that a mine at Bald Mountain would create jobs for Aroostook County, the record shows widespread opposition to the rules from residents of Aroostook County. The BEP received comments in opposition to the rules from Aroostook County residents living in Carr Pond, Easton, Houlton, Island Falls, Mapleton, Mars Hill, Presque Isle, Sherman, and Woodland.

Over the past four years, Irving has lobbied to weaken Maine’s mining rules. In the final days of the 2012 legislative session, Irving secured passage of a new law that directed DEP to rewrite Maine’s mining rules. In 2014 and 2015, the Legislature rejected similar rules. The rules approved today by the BEP are mostly unchanged from the version that the Legislature overwhelmingly rejected in 2015 with a vote of 109-36 in the House and 26-8 in the Senate. 

When the BEP considered draft mining rules in 2013, public comments in opposition outnumbered comments in support by a margin of 248 to 16. During two public hearings held in 2015 by the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, people testifying against the weak mining rules outnumbered supporters by 153 to 15, with not a single citizen from Aroostook County testifying in support.In total, over the last few years, opponents of weak mining rules have outnumbered supporters 842-33, with the majority of comments in support being delivered by lobbyists for Irving or consulting firms that would benefit from mining in Maine. The public record shows essentially no citizen support for these weak mining rules. Not from Aroostook County residents, and not from people who live elsewhere in Maine.

The public’s legitimate concerns about the flaws in these rules and the underlying 2012 Maine Mining Act seems to have finally gotten through to both the BEP and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), at least a little bit. Several BEP members expressed strong concern after the vote that the rules might not adequately protect Maine taxpayers. DEP issued a memo to the BEP asking it to recommend possible changes to the Maine Mining Act, such as banning the most dangerous mining activities from floodplains and restricting mining on public land. These are just recommendations, and they do not fix these very flawed rules and statute, but they are a sign that the hard work of Maine’s citizens to protect our state from mining pollution is having an effect. 

Much of the discussion about mining in Maine has focused on Irving’s interest in an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain, which Irving President Jim Irving has described as a 100-acre open pit within a 500-acre mine site.

In October 2014, NRCM released a report: Bald Mountain Mining Risks:  Hidden from the Public. It documents the high likelihood of sulfuric acid and arsenic pollution from mining at Bald Mountain. The report reveals information in DEP files from previous companies that owned the mineral rights at Bald Mountain but decided against pursuing an active mine. 

If approved by the Legislature, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s weak mining rules would apply statewide and replace existing, more protective rules that Maine adopted in 1991. The rules face a public hearing before the Joint Standing Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources later this winter.