AUGUSTA, Maine — A bid by the state’s largest landholder to relaunch the state’s mining industry in Aroostook County squared off Thursday against concerns that mining’s dark past in Maine could return in the form of environmental damage that may never be reversed.

But proponents of metallic mineral mining rules under consideration by the Board of Environmental Protection argued during a marathon hearing Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center that mining technologies and procedures have advanced to the point that environmental effects can be contained. Furthermore, they said Maine’s new mining law, which was enacted in 2012, is stringent and carefully crafted.

“At least give the mining developers the opportunity to demonstrate that they can adhere to the standards,” said Tom Doyle, an attorney for Pierce Atwood who represented Canadian timber company JD Irving, Ltd., at Thursday’s hearing, The new mining law was written after Irving said it wants to mine a 500-acre site it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, which it believes holds substantial deposits of copper and zinc.

Considerably more than 100 people were in attendance at the beginning of the hearing, more than 50 of whom indicated they intended to testify.

At issue are detailed rules developed by the Department of Environmental Protection in response to LD 1853, a law enacted in 2012 during the 125th Legislature. While proponents of the bill argued that the new law would spur economic development, opponents have contended that the new rules gut provisions currently in law that protect groundwater and ensure that mining companies have the financial resources to follow a project through. That includes setting aside enough money up front for any necessary environmental cleanups, whether the mine is financially successful or not.

The DEP, which has been working on the proposed rules for months and released a draft in mid-August, is scheduled to adopt new rules by January 2014, when they’ll be considered by the Legislature. Metallic mineral mining focuses on valuable metals such as gold, silver, copper and zinc.

This type of mining has not happened in Maine for decades, but the prospect was revived by J.D. Irving Ltd., which says the venture could eventually create up to 700 jobs and generate more than $100 million in state and local tax revenue.

The new law survived a challenge in the Legislature earlier this year. In June, the Senate defeated LD 1302, An Act to Amend the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act to Protect Water Quality, which called for more stringent water quality protections, among other provisions.

Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, is a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. She said the mining rules as proposed are not in line with what the committee, which she was not a member of during the 125th Legislature, provided as a “blueprint” for the rules. Cooper was on the committee this year when it considered LD 1302.

“Our goal was never to prohibit mining in Maine but to ensure that we do not destroy what makes Maine great,” she said. “I do believe that the proposed rules deviate from the blueprint we developed in the committee. The problem with making mistakes in mining is that there are no do-overs.”

Even proponents of the proposed rules argued that they are too stringent in terms of financial requirements for would-be mining operations and buffer zones that are too wide. The proposed rules would ban mining within a mile of any state-owned lands.

Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for J.D. Irving, said the current version of the rules bar mining in any body of water, which includes the water that’s found underground. That provision alone would virtually eliminate the possibility of mining in the state, Hourihan told the BDN.

“We appreciate the department’s work but we think the rules need a lot of little tweaks,” said Hourihan, who said even with the passage of the law, Irving still needs to explore whether mining on Bald Mountain is viable. Asked whether Irving plans to mine any of its other land holdings in Maine — which total some 1.2 million acres — Hourihan said it’s a possibility.

Nick Bennett, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, argued that Bald Mountain contains alarmingly high levels of toxic sulfur and arsenic and that the mining rules should be more stringent. He and others brought up past mining sites in Maine, such as the former Callahan Mine in Brooksville, which 40 years after its closure remains severely polluted and is designated as a federal Superfund site.

“We need strong standards to prevent this from ever happening again,” said Bennett. “We should not weaken Maine’s rules at Irving’s request just so it can mine Bald Mountain. We need strict and clear rules that protect the whole state from mining pollution.”

Jessamine Logan, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said she did not expect the board to vote on Thursday. The Board of Environmental Protection’s vote constitutes a recommendation to the full Legislature, which has final say on the rules.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.