A view of Pickett Mountain, the location of a proposed metallic minerals mine, from nearby Pleasant Lake. Credit: Courtesy of the Natural Resources Council of Maine

HOULTON, Maine — Members of the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Penobscot Nation said this week they are concerned that potential wastewater damage from the proposed metallic minerals mine on Pickett Mountain could affect bodies of water that are important to their cultures.

The tribal members and representatives were key speakers on a Natural Resources Council of Maine webinar Tuesday evening opposing the mine proposed by Wolfden Resources, based in Canada. The Natural Resources Council has long been critical of the project, claiming that Wolfden has been unable to prove that it can safely treat wastewater produced in the mining operation. Wolfden has denied those claims.

Wolfden acquired the 528-acre area around Pickett Mountain, located near the town of Mount Chase, in 2017 and has been drilling in the area since to look for minerals such as zinc, lead and copper. Wolfden has applied to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission to rezone the location to a planned development area. If approved, the proposal will go to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for a permitting review under the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act, one of the toughest mining laws in the United States. This will be Maine’s first test of its stricter mining law. The DEP will make the final decision on the metallic mineral mining permit needed for the company to pursue its operation.

Dan Kusnierz, a water resources program manager for Penobscot Nation, and Sharri Venno, an environmental planner for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, expressed concerns that improperly handled wastewater could affect the Mednuxnekeag, Mattawamkeag and Penobscot rivers.

The proposed site for the Wolfden project is located near several Penobscot Nation lands, such as Grand Lake Matagamon and Mountain Catcher Pond, which serve as important resources for cold-water lake fish, such as brook trout and salmon, for the tribe, Kusnierz said.

“The proposed Wolfden site is located near and threatens several tracts of significant conservation land,” Kusnierz said. “It’s located near Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. And it threatens the Mattawamkeag River, and ultimately the Penobscot River.”

Venno said the plans for Pickett Mountain could potentially open the way for further mining operations, threatening the Maliseets’ efforts to restore the salmon population along the watershed of the Meduxnekeag River. 

“We look at all kinds of threats to our vision of restoring salmon,” Venno said. “So we want to make sure that all the effort we put into helping to develop these protective mining laws are honored.”

Ron Little, the CEO of Wolfden Resources, said Thursday that the company had reached out to several communities, including Maine’s tribes, regarding the project and the company’s plans for wastewater treatment shortly after submitting its rezoning application to the Land Use Planning Commission in early 2020.

“We started reaching out to the local community, including the indigenous peoples,” Little said. “We’re happy to continue to reach out and have Zoom calls and dialogue with anybody interested in the project.”

The Natural Resources Council presentation also came about just as Wolfden announced that it had received $2 million (Canadian) in additional financing from fellow Canadian mining companies Altius Minerals and Kinross Gold, who together acquired more than 6 million shares in Wolfden stock. Altius and Kinross own 12.6 and 11.4 percent of shares in Wolfden, respectively.

“That’s positive news for us and for the project,” Little said. “Based on the drilling and the work we’ve been doing, they’re interested to make sure that we keep going.”

Wolfden is waiting for decisions on its rezoning permit, which is under review by the LUPC. Little said Wolfden had submitted additional comments to the LUPC as part of the ongoing review, and that he expected to hear back from that board sometime next week.

Once the review is complete, it will go to a formal public hearing process before a final decision is made by the commission and it moves on to the DEP.

Correction: Environmental planner Sharri Venno represented the Houlton Band of Maliseets at the Natural Resources Council of Maine webinar earlier this month, but is not a member. She said that Wolfden’s Pickett Mountain mining project could open the way for other mining operations and ultimately threaten tribal efforts to restore the salmon population in the Meduxnekeag River watershed.