An aerial view of the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke. Worried about the harm a mine could inflict on water quality, voters in the small Washington County town banned large-scale metal mines. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Malagara

Pembroke residents overwhelmingly voted to ban large-scale metal mines this week, likely crushing the chances of a silver mine springing up from recent exploratory drilling in the small Down East town.

Voters, concerned about the potential harm a mine could have on the area’s water quality, packed a special town meeting Wednesday night and passed an ordinance that prohibits industrial metal mining. The vote was 129 to 48.

The Friends of Cobscook Bay proposed the ordinance after Canadian-based Wolfden Resources began looking into mining silver and other metals in an area of Pembroke known as Big Hill. The company has not made an official commitment to start a mine in town, but has been doing exploratory drilling over the fall and winter to promising results.

The new regulations prohibit any industrial-scale metal mining operations and eliminates the project’s threat to the area’s natural resources, proponents said.

“A win for home rule and local democracy rings out today over the bays, rivers, lakes and aquifers of Down East Maine,” said Severine Fleming, one of the leaders of the Pembroke Clean Water Committee, another group in favor of the ordinance. “The voters have spoken and they want clean water.”

Wolfden CEO Ron Little said he was disappointed in the vote, but respected the municipal process.

He wished he had more of an opportunity to talk to residents about the project and address any concerns. Maine has some of the strictest regulations on mining in the country and this location could have provided economic benefits to the region without hurting the environment, he said.

The company is considering its next steps and hoped to continue a dialogue with Pembroke about how to work together.  

“We welcome the opportunity to work with local communities and the Maine DEP to demonstrate the positive social and economic impact that a modern and highly regulated mine could have for them and the State of Maine,” he said.  

The two citizen groups that galvanized around the issue feared local waters could become contaminated with sulfuric acid from a mine. Metal mining can expose sulfide deposits to air or water, forming the acid that can then leak into the ground.

That was especially concerning for people in Pembroke, who rely on private wells for drinking water and local lakes, bays and wetlands for jobs and recreation.

The ban prohibits any metallic mine in town that annually extracts more than 10,000 tons of mine waste, has a mining area of more than three acres or extracts more than 10,000 tons of bulk sampling materials during exploratory tests over a 10-year period.

It does not affect smaller mining operations, nor does it apply to mining for other substances, such as gravel, clay or peat.  

Wolfden could continue to explore the area for its mining potential if it stayed within the new, more limited parameters, but, under the new rules, the company would also have to provide more details about its current and intended work to the town and abutting landowners, said Agnieszka Dixon, a municipal attorney that helped draft the ordinance.

Wednesday’s vote adds Pembroke to a growing list of Maine Municipalities that have put tighter restrictions on mining activities. Wolfden also ran into opposition last year when a proposal for a mining operation at Pickett Mountain in northern Penobscot County was hit with criticism from environmentalists.