November 20, 2012

Mich. company to help rework Maine's environmental rules for mines

Environmentalist upset with choice of sole bidder to help rewrite rules

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The state has hired a Michigan consulting firm to help modernize environmental rules for mining operations, once again fueling the wrangling over mining in Maine.

The Department of Environmental Protection will pay $175,000 of a $500,000 legislative appropriation to the North Jackson Co. of Marquette, Mich. -- along with Maine-based subcontractor, S.W. Cole Engineering -- so it can help assist in updating metallic mineral mining rules.

North Jackson Co. was the only bidder on the contract, although the contract details were downloaded three dozen times and the state's search for proposals was widely advertised, said Samantha DePoy-Warren, director of communications for the DEP. The state also sent notices to members of the National Mining Association and the Interstate Mining Contract, but no other firms submitted proposals, she said.

Environmental and conservation groups around Maine said they're dismayed and surprised at the selection of the sole bidder for the job. They said mining regulation is critically important to the state, and they contend that the Legislature dealt with the issue in haste earlier this year, when it passed the law calling for the regulatory overhaul.

Pete Didisheim, senior director for advocacy with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that organization interprets the hiring of an out-of-state firm as outsourcing of the regulatory process.

DePoy-Warren said North Jackson Co. was awarded the contract because the firm has experience with mineral mining regulation in Michigan.

Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, a nonprofit conservation organization in Hallowell, said it was not entirely unexpected that the state would have to go beyond its borders to find help with mining issues and rules.

Nearly 30 years ago, he said, he was involved in an exhaustive search for help establish rules to govern a mining project proposed for Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

It was virtually impossible to find a firm "with mining expertise that was not a tool of the industry," he said.

Several environmental groups were raising just that concern Tuesday, because little is known about the Michigan firm.

"To what extent is this going to be a black-box product?" that excludes input from the public or organizations who have a stake in the outcome of the rule-making, asked Jeff Reardon, Maine brook trout project manager for Trout Unlimited in Hallowell.

"This is really, really serious stuff," said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, a nonprofit environmental organization in Yarmouth. "I'm very concerned and skeptical, and I think other people should be, too."

The fate of proposed mining projects, including one from Irving, the state's largest landowner, to remove gold, silver and copper deposits from Bald Mountain, has been on hold while the rule-making process unfolds. DEP has not received any formal requests for permits. Irving has said in the past that a mining operation on Bald Mountain could create 700 jobs.

There are no active metal mining operations in the state now, DePoy-Warren said.

The value of an ounce of gold has risen above $1,700 and silver has reached $33. The potential value of Bald Mountain deposits has been estimated at several billion dollars.

But environmentalists warned against settling for short-term benefits without knowing the long-term costs of cleanup and remediation.

"A critical part of Maine's identity is to protect the environment," Didisheim said. The state has "pretty sizable (mineral) deposits ... but it's a messy business to get at them."

Mining entails "literally blowing up (a) mountain," followed by crushing and pulverizing of rock, he said. The waste rock from the process has sulfide deposits that may hold copper, zinc, silver or gold. But when exposed to air and water, sulfide deposits are transformed into sulfuric acid that rain or other water can transport into rivers and streams. That contamination could be severe, widespread and long-lasting, he said.

The Legislature and the DEP agreed to contract out assistance with the regulation drafting to ensure the modernized rules were based on sound science, reflected the best current mining practices and processes and provided the most environmental protection, said DePoy-Warren.

North Jackson has worked before on permitting, including rules for mining operations and environmental regulations, said Daniel Wiitala, vice president and chief financial officer for North Jackson, an environmental science and engineering firm. He said drawing on Michigan's experience would be a good fit with Maine, because both are "water-rich states ... with similar climates," considerations that can affect mining plans significantly.

North Jackson has subcontracted with S.W. Cole Engineering to provide local expertise, but the firm does not yet have exact details on their involvement, because the scope of the work has not been finalized with North Jackson, said Cliff Lippitt, senior geologist with S.W. Cole.

North Jackson will work under DEP's direction to produce an initial draft of new rules by February, Wiitala said.

Once updated rules are developed, they'll go through an approval process that DEP officials say will be transparent and will offer several opportunities for public comment.

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