AUGUSTA, MAINE >> The state is facing a backlash from environmentalists, tribal members and fishing and recreational groups over its latest proposal to jumpstart mining.
Mining is technically allowed under state law, and lawmakers enacted a 2012 law streamlining the mining permitting process. But lawmakers have twice rejected regulations for the law, which critics including the Natural Resources Council of Maine note was passed at mining interests' behest.
Conglomerate company J.D. Irving Ltd. has pushed for eased environmental laws for an open-pit copper and zinc mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, one of Maine's six notable mineral deposits. The company, which is involved in industries including forestry, agriculture and shipbuilding, has said Maine's mismatched regulations create a "de facto ban" on an industry that could provide jobs.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage has criticized lawmakers as subverting the democratic process and environmental groups as opposing mining regulations.
About two dozen critics at a Thursday hearing said Maine's rules fail to protect scenic lands and waters, and they pointed to evidence suggesting mining at Bald Mountain's ore deposit risks polluting rivers and streams. State regulators are bound by the 2012 law, which allows groundwater contamination and doesn't address issues such as mining on public lands.
A member of the trout and salmon conservation organization Trout Unlimited told the LePage-appointed Board of Environmental Protection it should reject the state's rules, ask for legislative clarification and let old regulations stand. Jeff Reardon, the organization's Maine brook trout project director, said the state should be able to "say no" to sites where it's too dangerous to mine responsibly.
State geologist Robert Marvinney was the only speaker supporting the rules. He said Michigan's Eagle Mine is an example of strong environmental protections for mining, and he said Maine's proposed rules are stronger than Michigan's.
The latest rules would let companies conduct small exploration activities without permits and set up permitting processes for bigger mining operations. The Department of Environmental Protection said regulators have limited authority to restrict mining on public lands.
Mining companies would have to provide full financial assurance before beginning large-scale mining activities, plus more for unforeseen disasters. On Thursday, critics said it's impossible to estimate the costs of worse-case scenarios.
Brenda Commander, tribal chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, said the tribe recently bought a water bottling company eight miles from Bald Mountain.
"Mining and mining exploration, especially near water, could disturb or may likely destroy invaluable and sacred cultural resources," Commander said.
Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said the state hasn't received new mining permit applications but comprehensive rules would ensure all applications are judged the same way.
Board of Environmental Protection member Tom Eastler defended mining, which he said is "beneficial to everyone who uses modern technology and not-so-modern technology."
State Rep. Ralph Chapman and former Sen. Jim Boyle, who are Democrats, said Maine lacks expertise with metallic mining and called for independent monitoring of mining and cleanup processes.
Chapman's district includes the former zinc and copper open-pit Callahan Mine, a federal Superfund site whose cleanup costs have recently increased from $23 million to $45 million. About $4.5 million of that will come from state taxpayers, Chapman said.