Maine Lawmakers Ban Open-Pit Mining, Approve Restrictions

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By Adrianne Appel

Maine will ban open-pit mining, prohibit mining on public land, and restrict the industry elsewhere in the state under a far-reaching bill approved by lawmakers following the governor’s veto.

Both chambers overwhelmingly approved the bill (LD 820) Jun 8, following a June 2 veto by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine tried unsuccessfully for four years to update its mining rules. The Act to Protect Maine’s Clean Water and Taxpayers From Mining Pollution represents a compromise between the Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-led House, and also reflects the success of a four-year lobbying effort by environmental organizations who argued for stronger rules.

The bill will ban mining in or under public lands and prohibits mining activity, including waste disposal, in floodplains. It limits the area defined as “the mining area,” to only the land where ore is removed. Land and water outside the mining area must be protected from mine pollution.

Mining produces toxic waste, called tailings. Companies often mix the tailings with water and store the contaminated slurry in above-ground ponds, called impoundments. The bill prohibits impoundments and requires any waste to be stored in dry stacks.

Mining Jobs Needed

LePage said he vetoed the bill because it would discourage companies from mining in the state.

“Establishing clear and reasonable standards for mining could bring mining jobs to Maine. Unnecessary prohibitions based on fear, not science, prevent job creation,” he said in a veto statement.

Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group, called it “an excellent bill that provides the strongest set of protections from mining pollution in the country.”

The next step is for the state Department of Environmental Protection to write mining rules, which the Legislature will then consider.In 2011, LePage asked the Legislature to update Maine’s 1987 mining law to make it friendlier to companies interested in mining in the state. LePage was approached by J.D. Irving Ltd., a Canadian conglomerate, about mining gold and other precious metals in the state’s northern, mountainous counties, where the company owns large tracts of land. Mining could bring jobs to the region, where unemployment is high, LePage said.

Lawmakers honored Lepage’s request and passed a new mining law in 2012, which environmental groups criticized as risky to waterways and the environment generally. But when the DEP drafted rules, the Legislature wouldn’t approve them, agreeing with environmental groups that they were too weak.

The environment department drafted four additional versions of the rules and the Legislature rejected each one.

Spreads Contamination

Finally, this year, the bipartisan-led Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources went back to the drawing board and drafted a new, stricter mining law, Sen. Brownie Carson (D), sponsor of the bill, said in testimony to the committee March 20.

“There is simply no way to allow unlimited groundwater contamination in mining areas and expect that it will not spread to groundwater outside the mining area and to surface water,” Carson said about the bill’s restrictions.

It was Rep. Robert Foley (R) who proposed to the environment committee that the bill ban open-pit mining. “Tunnel or shaft mining would provide a safer risk, environmentally,” though it’s more costly for companies, he told the environment committee.

Carson and Foley were two of 151 people to testify March 20, a large number for a Maine hearing, which shows the passion behind the question of mining, even after four years of debate.

Bennett, whose organization had input into the bill, said many lawmakers seemed to regret agreeing to the 2012 law. They hoped the Department of Environmental Protection would draft strong rules despite the law. When that didn’t happen after four years of trying, lawmakers started over with a new bill, Bennett told Bloomberg BNA in a June 8 interview.

Maine’s rural areas rely on tourism and hunting guiding for income, and lawmakers worried that mining would harm those businesses, Bennett said.

“They’re afraid, given the history of mining in Maine, that any kind of large-scale mining would damage the state. We have strict protections in this law as a consequence of that,” Bennett said.

Maine’s Callahan mine closed in 1972 but remains so grossly contaminated that it is a federal Superfund site. It never made money and even years later, the state must help pay for its cleanup, Bennett said.

Maine’s northern metal deposits have high levels of sulfur, which is acidic and leaches arsenic, also present in high amounts, Bennett said.

J.D. Irving said it appreciated “the time, broad consultation and detailed review the [DEP] and legislators have given to contributions by stakeholders and scientific experts,” Mary Keith, JD Irving spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 8 email. The company has no plans to pursue mining permits in the state, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Adrianne Appel in Boston at aappel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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