FORT KENT, Maine — Mining in Aroostook County will not come at the expense of the environment, regardless of the economic potential, the head of the Canadian-based company that owns Bald Mountain pledged Thursday morning.

James Irving, president of J.D. Irving Ltd. addressed his company’s plans to mine Bald Mountain in central Aroostook County during a forum sponsored by the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s board of visitors.

“We have a long-term investment in this state,” Irving told about 350 people attending the forum in UMFK’s Fox Auditorium. “We don’t want some mining operation screwing that up.”

Irving, whose St. John, New Brunswick, company has been involved in Maine forest and timber production since the late 1800s, said his primary goal in exploring mining options on Irving-owned land in Maine is determining whether there is the possibility for economic benefit. But he stressed it will not come at a cost to the environment.

“Whatever we do it has to be done right,” Irving said. “We have no interest in a project that will damage our reputation or the environment.”

Irving added he and his company “take great pride in how we manage our timberlands in Maine and if the mining can’t be done right, we’ll stick to planting trees.”

J.D. Irving Ltd. currently owns 1.25 million acres of timberland in Maine, primarily in Aroostook County. It owns the 500 acres on Bald Mountain 15 miles west of Portage in partnership with Aroostook Timberlands, LLC.

Last month Gov. Paul LePage signed into law LD 1853 which streamlined Maine’s mining permitting and regulatory process and, according to its sponsors Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, will make mining areas like Bald Mountain more economically attractive for landowners.

The legislation was drafted at Irving’s request.

“We approached John [Martin] and Troy [Jackson] because they have done a great job over the years fighting for northern Maine,” Irving said.

“The big reason for the changes in the law was the regulations for mining in Maine were outdated,” Irving said. “We saw they could be changed to make Maine more competitive on the global market.”

Since 1972, $25 million has been spent by various interests exploring the mining potential on Bald Mountain, according to Anthony Hourihan, J.D. Irving Woodlands director of land development.

Most recently Blackhawk Mining in 1996 expressed interest in establishing an open-pit mine on the site to extract gold and silver ore. That plan was abandoned, Hourihan said, when precious metal prices dropped.

Not since the early ’90s, Hourihan said, have the state’s mining laws been updated, despite advances in extraction and environmental technologies and the newly enacted legislation was key to Irving’s progressing with any mining operations at Bald Mountain.

The new law places all regulatory and permitting power in the hands of the state’s department of environmental protection and allows for site permits of 30 years or more.

This is a far cry from the old system under which permits could be modified or revoked after only five years, Irving said.

“If we are going to spend the money to establish a mine we need to have a permit that is good for the life of that mine,” he said. “We are not going to spend the money just to have someone in Augusta change the goal post after five years.”

Irving estimates his company will spend about $100 million if the Bald Mountain mining operation proves technically and environmentally feasible.

That capital expenditure, Hourihan said, is projected to translate into 700 direct and indirect jobs with a $600 million payroll and generate $120 million in state and local taxes over the life of the project.

In addition, Hourihan said the project would make use of the 200 miles of rail leading to and from Aroostook County, increase business at Maine’s seaports and require a 20-megawatt power plant that could use northern Maine-produced wood biomass for fuel.

As attractive as all that may be, Irving was adamant his company will not move forward until it can be said with 100 percent certainty that filtering technology will make all ground water affected or used in the mine safe for human consumption.

“If I can’t go and drink the water at the end of the pipe coming from the mine, we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “We have to be honest about what we are doing [and] we hold ourselves accountable because as far as we are concerned, we are home here.”

Irving referenced the reverse-osmosis filtration process patented by his company and used at the J.D. Irving pulp mill in St. John as an example of technology which could be used at a mine.

When it comes to those 700 jobs, Irving said he anticipates the majority will go to “local residents,” though there were some in the audience who questioned his definition of “local.”

“You may need to hire experts from places like Colorado, but they will need to live here,” Irving responded.

Over the next year the Department of Environmental Protection will prepare the rules and regulations under which mines must operate in Maine, in accordance with the recently passed legislation.

Once those rules are complete and approved by the Legislature, Hourihan said, the Irving company can begin exploring the technologies and methods needed to protect the environment from the toxic chemicals associated with extracting precious metals out of Bald Mountain.

The entire operation, Irving said, will have a 500-acre footprint with the mine’s pit covering 100 acres.

Within the legislation is language requiring the mill owners have in place the plan and finances for closing the mine when it ceases operations and for repairing the damage to the environment.

“What is that going to look like 30 years from now from above by satellite?” Irving asked. “Can the quality of soil support the re-greening of that area?”

By its nature, mining metals from the ground and shipping the raw products is not a “value added” practice, but Irving said there are many other ways to add value to the mine, including partnering with institutions such as UMFK or Northern Maine Community College to train the engineers and technicians needed to work at the mine.

“We really want to look ahead and see what kinds of jobs will be needed and build toward that,” Mary Keith, J.D. Irving Ltd., spokeswoman, said. “This could really help in keeping young people in Aroostook County.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.