March 26, 2012

MAINE COMPASS: Legislators have too little time to research open-pit mining for Maine

Landis Hudson

This week members of the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resource Committee will breathe deep and rush headlong into four back-to-back sessions to take on changing mining regulations for the state of Maine.

Legislators will be up to their elbows in acid, ore and optimistic plans for creating jobs to mine ore from Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

Proponents of L.D. 1853 will say that they hope mining at Bald Mountain can be done in an environmentally responsible way, but the track records for these types of operations in other states isn't great. And hope is not enough.

Most people don't associate Maine with large-scale open-pit mining operations, and the resulting giant mounds of tailings and vast quantities of polluted water. The state does have a belt of sulfide minerals, and interest in those found under Bald Mountain is now causing a rush to change laws so that J.D. Irving Ltd. would be able to find a business partner to begin mining operations.

Proponents of L.D. 1853 have hired lawyers to draft the bill's language and offer a road map to extracting minerals from Bald Mountain and other sites.

Where are the Maine experts in this field who can speak for protecting our resources? Maine universities have some great engineering programs, but I doubt that we have any homegrown experts able to address the myriad technical challenges that these entails.

If we don't address these details now, it will cost us in the future, and maybe cost us a lot.

Even as Maine faces one of the most damaging industrial processes on the planet, the state agencies and commissions that regulate and oversee Maine's natural resources are underfunded and going through a period of profound disruption. Attempts to eliminate the Land Use Regulation Commission would mean that the review of the proposed mining activity could be done in some sort of vacuum or back room.

It's not just about Bald Mountain; other locations with similar deposits are under Moosehead Lake, in the Katahdin Ironworks area and surrounding Cobscook Bay.

One of the results of an open-pit mine to extract ore likely could be a large lake, created as groundwater seeps to fill the deep hole dug to extract ore. This, however, would be a large toxic lake, a lake of acidic water that can't support life.

Through no fault of their own, state legislators and regulators are operating in ignorance as they try to cope with immense pressures both within and outside the Legislature to push through a last-minute, hastily-written law.

Our message to legislators in Augusta is this: slow down. Get this right. Four days is not enough time to do it. The consequences are far-reaching.

Landis Hudson is the executive director of Maine Rivers, a statewide advocacy organization.

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