The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources is set to host a game of charades, and the public is being invited to play.
Billed as a public hearing on mining regulations, the show will start 9 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, in Augusta. Its ostensible purpose is to hear what the public thinks about proposed mining regulations that would apply, most immediately, to JD Irving’s plan to excavate Bald Mountain, land it owns in Aroostook County.
However, this show is a re-run. It has as much to do with genuine interest in public participation as a show trial has to do with authentic justice. The identical regulations were rejected less than a year ago by the same committee, which sent them back to the Department of Environmental Protection to rewrite and resubmit in 2016. Its decision came after hours of public testimony from hundreds of people across the state.
These rules, not rewritten but merely recopied and resubmitted word for word, are what the public is again being asked to comment on. Moreover, it won’t much matter to the committee whether it hears the very same responses, word for word, from those who testify. Because the agenda is set: Pass the regulations regardless of the specific concerns raised, note that certain sections may need revision, and then “fix” them, or not, later.
This not-very-entertaining spectacle is being hosted by Sen. Tom Saviello, co-chair of the committee, but is being at least co-produced by Rep. John Martin. And therein lies the reason why all this is happening.
Martin, who sponsored the bill intended to weaken mining regulations in Maine at the behest of JD Irving Company, lost his seat in 2012. He was not in the Legislature when the regulations that his bill spawned were rejected in March last year. This year, Martin is back and sits on the very same committee that voted against the regulations 11 months ago.
Consequently, like a bad penny, the regulations are back, too. And of course JD Irving, whose lawyers actually drafted the bill, never went away. What has changed is the composition of the committee since the 2014 elections. Martin and his legislative allies appear confident that they have the votes to do whatever they like this time around.
The upcoming public hearings promise to be less a reality show than a surreality show: The goings-on in plain view are precisely what is not to be talked about. Because approval of the rules may enable JD Irving to have its way to mine Bald Mountain, you’d think, and even news reporters assumed, the subject will come up.
“The debate will likely focus on Bald Mountain, a remote spot 35 miles west of Presque Isle where the Canadian corporate giant, J.D. Irving Ltd., wants to open a mine to remove minerals worth $6 billion to $7 billion,” said Portland Press Herald reporter Kevin Miller on Jan 31.
Not the case. Saviello has made plain that testimony about Bald Mountain will be off-topic. During the committee’s pre-hearing briefings he noted, “It will not be about Bald Mountain. It will not be about Irving. … We will be pretty strict about that.”
Another elephant in the living room that the public will be directed to ignore is why the committee has chosen to short-circuit the work it mandated the DEP to do. What was wrong with the plan to revamp the mining rules with the benefit of the comments that hundreds of Mainers have already taken great pains to provide?
A better use of the public’s time during the upcoming mining rule hearings would be to hear testimony from the members of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources themselves. The question to them is: “Why are we, the public, being subjected to procedural shenanigans in the guise of a credible forum for citizen participation?”
Dennis Chinoy of Bangor is a volunteer for Power in Community Alliances.