Missing from the BDN coverage of the public hearing on metal mining — and from the previous report on the subject — is discussion of a bill to repeal Maine’s industry-friendly 2012 mining statute. That bill, LD 253, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman, challenges not only the third attempt by Maine Department of Environmental Protection to weaken mining rules enacted in 1991, but it challenges also a bill promoted by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which would allow mining even as it opposes the department’s draft.
With only two out of more than 70 participants testifying in favor of the DEP bill — LD 395 — to enable mining in Maine, legislators will not likely approve it. What matters is that some two dozen people splintered off from the big Maine enviros led by the Natural Resources Council of Maine at the hearing, objecting to their compromise strategy. Written comments in favor of LD 253 from dozens more bring the total to over 90, close to the number of those in support of LD 820.
The large, influential environmental groups — including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Priorities Coalition, Appalachian Mountain Club, Trout Unlimited, RESTORE, Maine Audubon and Sierra Club Maine — do not serve their members well by ignoring the drawbacks of the compromise bill, LD 820. It would only limit, not ban, contamination of groundwater at a mining site, and even if amended to prohibit wet mining waste (tailings ponds) and open-pit mining — a condition demanded by many who spoke — it would still be unviable. As several analysts pointed out, applicants for mining permits should be expected to comply with all environmental laws — notably the Site Location Development Law and Natural Resources Protection Act — but the flawed 2012 mining statute exempts industry from that requirement.
The strong showing in Augusta should send a message to legislators that we want our laws to be protective proactively, not written to manage after-the-fact remediation. A former Department of Environmental Protection biologist, Susan Davies, made that point explicitly, as did her former Department of Environmental Protection colleagues Deb Stahler and Peter Garrett. Describing Maine’s climate as one of the wettest in the country, Garrett, a hydrogeologist, concluded: “I do not believe avoiding groundwater pollution as a result of mining massive sulfide deposits in Maine is possible. It would inevitably lead to serious surface water pollution.” All three scientists support Chapman’s bill to repeal the existing mining law, leaving in place the 1991 rules that prohibit groundwater pollution by mining operations.
It was the devastating sulfuric-acid contamination of water at the Callahan Mine in Harborside — now a Superfund site — that led to the creation of those rules in 1991. Forty years after the mine closure, researchers are still trying to identify whether toxic metal contamination — which continues to seep out — comes from rock piles or sediment at the site. Alarmingly, levels of copper, zinc, cadmium and lead in fish in the estuary there are high enough to affect larger fish and birds, increasing potential for harm to wildlife and humans beyond the site.
A very expensive U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan for eventual disposal of corrosive mining waste into Callahan’s submerged excavation pit is a point of contention in the ongoing debate. By allowing for “limited” groundwater pollution within a mining site and by condoning dry mining waste management, the Natural Resources Council of Maine gives tacit approval to industry’s plan to store dry mining waste temporarily, pending permanent disposal into a spent open-pit mine covered by water. To set in motion the destructive, unstoppable process of acid mine drainage into waterways, as these concessions to mining interests would inevitably do, is unconscionable.
Individuals in all the large groups defending LD 820 would do well to re-examine their position in light of the unacceptable risks posed by mining technology. They have better options for stringent environmental protection: LD 253, to repeal the defective 2012 mining statute, as well as two other bills advanced by Chapman — a moratorium on metallic mining (LD 254) and a proposal to establish an advisory panel with mining expertise (LD 685).
Whether for recreation, for aquifers, for irrigation, for all aquatic and human life, where water quality is threatened there should be no compromise. Let us not allow Maine’s precious natural resources to be undermined.
Jody Spear is an editor and writer living in Harborside in Hancock County.