Sunday, April 20, 2014
As we close in on the end of the legislative session, lawmakers are working feverishly on a number of measures, including one that could bring metal mining back to Maine. Despite claims to the contrary from some in Maine's environmental community, changing Maine's existing mining law will not create a "gold rush" mentality in the Maine woods.
Aroostook Timberlands LLC, part of J.D. Irving, owns the land at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, where there is a significant deposit of gold, silver, copper and zinc. The company is interested in determining if a mining operation is viable there, but has been advised by leading experts in mining law that Maine's current structure makes development economically unfeasible.
L.D. 1853, introduced by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, seeks to streamline Maine's mining laws and rules.
The bill is not intended to roll back environmental protections; instead it will simplify the process, eliminate confusing and rigid requirements and create a framework for a consolidated permitting and regulatory process.
The mining laws and rules were last revised in 1991; since then, no significant mining development has been undertaken in Maine.
Some people undoubtedly view this inaction as a success, but we should call it what it is: a failed regulatory scheme that has precluded any significant development of nonferrous mineral mining for two decades.
The company behind L.D. 1853 is J.D. Irving, which already has invested in our state. In addition to owning 1.3 million acres of timberland, it employs more than 350 Maine people in forestry and logging, forest products, fertilizer distribution, potato farming and rail transportation.
The Irving companies' conservation efforts in the state are second to none, and their environmental record is superior. At the public hearing on L.D. 1853, company representatives said repeatedly that if they can't get the ore out of the ground in an environmentally responsible manner, then it will stay in the ground.
Apparently, some opponents would prefer the Irving companies take their investment elsewhere. Some of testimony has consisted of little more than blatant fear-mongering and hyperbole.
For their part, the 13 members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee should be commended for running an innovative and transparent process of briefings, hearings and work sessions on this one bill over a three-week period. Even if the bill passes, rulemaking, with plenty of opportunity for public input, could take up to two years; and after the rules are completed, they will come back to the Legislature for final approval.
Earlier this month, the Maine Development Foundation released its annual "Measures of Growth" report, which measures Maine's economic performance using 25 key indicators of economic, community and environmental performance.
Of all the important findings, none stood out more than this one: "Over the last five years, (Gross Domestic Product) has grown much more slowly in Maine (0.8 percent), than in New England (5.0 percent) and the nation (4.3 percent)."
Many of us who believe that Maine would benefit from an increase in GDP recognize that laws that prohibit economic activity need to be changed. A 21-year track record of no mining development is proof of a failed process.
In spite of a dismal economic forecast and a state budget crisis that threatens the health and well-being of thousands of Maine people, the opponents of L.D. 1853 have refused to address the economic consequences of maintaining the status quo.
If they oppose revising a failed regulatory scheme, then, at a minimum, they should suggest a replacement for the hundreds of jobs in Aroostook County, $120 million in state and local taxes and corresponding improvement in GDP the Bald Mountain project could generate.
L.D. 1853 is not about rolling back environmental protections or damaging our waterways and forests. It's about investment in our state that will create hundreds of jobs that our people desperately need. Let's get the conversation back on the right track. Let's figure out how to craft a piece of legislation that works for all of us. And let's do it now; Maine people can't afford to wait.
John O'Dea is the CEO of Associated General Contractors of Maine. He previously served in both the Maine House of Representative and the Maine Senate, representing Penobscot County.