Wolfden President, Ron Little, center, responds to questions regarding the junior mining company's ability to operate a mine during the Maine Land Use Planning Commission public hearing Monday in Millinocket. Wolfden is seeking LUPC rezoning for a metallic mineral mine at Pickett Mountain near Mt. Chase. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Much of the information supplied in a Canadian junior mining company’s rezoning application for a mining project near Pickett Mountain in northern Penobscot County is speculative, according to testimony on the first day of Maine Land Use Planning Commission’s public hearings on the proposal. 

Monday’s testimony and cross-examination regarding Wolfden’s application to change the zoning from a general management and protection area to a planned development area, zeroed in on the company’s financial stability, the actual composition of the mine and the company’s ability to operate a mine.

After company officials laid out the plan for the mine, experts and attorneys asked pointed questions. A few spoke in favor of the project pointing out its potential economic benefits.

The public hearings, slated for Oct. 16, 17 and 18 at Stearns Jr./Sr. High School at 199 State St. in Millinocket, are part of the commission’s process to determine whether to approve Wolfden’s rezoning application. The hearing is live streamed on YouTube.

During the evening portion of the public hearings, residents were divided on the mine, with more in opposition to the LUPC’s approval of the Wolfden application. 

Those asking the LUPC to deny the rezoning request spoke of the devastating environmental impact to the state’s natural resources. Several Maine lawmakers and business owners were in favor of its approval to boost the local economy and bring needed jobs to the region. 

“Water is precious,” said Rae Bates of Patten. “I hate to rely on you and the [DEP] to save us from a natural disaster. In our community, we are already dealing with PFAS with millions of dollars for clean-up. We don’t need another.” 

In the daytime session, experts testified that minimal geological samples, stockholder decisions regarding Wolfden’s future and other unknown variables make it challenging to determine environmental impacts, the number of jobs or the ability of the mining company to see the proposed metallic mineral mining project to fruition. 

In January, the LUPC received a rezoning application from Wolfden for a 374-acre parcel in the Unorganized Territory next to the town of Mount Chase and about 9 miles from Patten. The rezoning approval would allow Wolfden to seek an Environmental Protection Agency permit for metallic mineral mining under Maine’s new mining law. 

This is Wolfden’s second rezoning LUPC application. It withdrew a 2020 rezoning application after LUPC staff pointed to missed deadlines and inconsistencies in the junior mining company’s initial rezoning attempt. Junior mining companies are exploratory in nature, have limited financial resources and more than half fail, University of South Carolina associate professor of geography David Kneas said in a previous interview

LUPC Commissioner Everett Worcester condensed the technical portion of the hearings to include financial practicability, water and fish resources and aquatic habitats, wildlife resources and habitats, natural character, historical and cultural resources, relevant tribal impacts and socioeconomics.

Wolfden and two intervening parties are included in the technical sessions. The intervenors can bring in expert witnesses to weigh in on Wolfden arguments and cross examine company witnesses.

Intervenor No. 1, H.C. Haynes Inc., a Maine producer of wood products, supports the Wolfden project especially as it relates to jobs and the region’s economy. 

Intervenor No. 2,  the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Penobscot Nation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, represented by the Conservation Law Foundation, Earthjustice and Brann & Isaacson, opposes the rezoning application because of the potential damage to Wabanaki lands and waters, the region’s natural resources and its adjacency to brook trout and endangered Atlantic salmon habitat.  

Initially, Wolfden representatives presented the details of the proposed mining project and Intervenor No. 2 attorneys and LUPC commissioners questioned the details of the presentations. 

Geologist Jim Finley, representing Wolfden, said that the seven ore samples taken from the Pickett Mountain site and noted in the Wolfden application are from what is outside the natural concentration of ore. 

“To be quite honest, I don’t need a test to tell me whether the ore body would be acid generating,” Finley said when asked about possible acid generation by Earthjustice Attorney Aaron Bloom. Finley said the ore body would be acid-generating which can cause a toxic environment for fish, drinking water and natural lakes, rivers and streams. 

Several evening speakers talked about their own experience with mines in other states and said they have not been able to find an example of a zinc mine that was not a natural disaster.

Marion Hale Fowler of Norcross remembers when Maine’s rivers were polluted. 

“I really hope you say no … I’m hearing dollars and jobs versus the environment,” she said. “We’ve come a long, long way from the days when the rivers were filthy. You need to evaluate not just the amount of money, you need to remember the future generations, for our children and grandchildren.”  

Some of the hearing focused on Wolfden’s financial stability. 

Sean Fieler, president of Equinox Partners, said that the viability of junior mining companies are judged not by their financial statements but by the quality of the deposit. Equinox Partners owns 20 percent of Wolfden and he said the proposed project has a likelihood of future profitability. 

“I met Ron Little [Wolfden president and CEO] two decades ago and he has a prior track record of success,” he said. 

On cross examination, Little said there is potential for a company takeover once the mining project is approved even though they have the intent to stay with the project. Stockholders make the final decisions, he said. Additionally, Little said they do not know if they will have the financial resources to complete the project.

“The way I see it, you are just a penny stock company, that’s what you are,” said Commissioner Leo Trudel, representing Aroostook County. 

Little said that Wolfden has never opened or operated a mine, although the staff has extensive experience operating mines with other companies. Little detailed his own financial success with West African Mines in Burkina Faso. 

Attorney Peter Brann pointed out that Wolfden Vice President of Development Jeremy Ouellette was previously with a New Brunswick zinc mine that folded under financial hardship. But Ouellette said that he left the company in 2017,  before its most recent financial issues. 

On Monday night, Pete Connelly of Island Falls said his family loves Maine, loves the community and loves the resources.

“We need jobs, we need world class training, we need business in Aroostook County, we are dying,” he said. “America needs zinc mines, Maine needs jobs. If successful, we get 230 jobs in Patten. That’s a home run.”

Regarding the 275 jobs promised to the area, Ouellette said that initially a contractor would supply the labor and after a few years, when local people are trained, they can take over for the contracted labor.

At this time, out of a $3.3 million administrative operating budget for the mine only $10,000 is allotted for this local training, Brann said. According to Ouelette, the $10,000 only represents training supplies in the budget. 

“You have had five years to meet with educational institutions to set up this training, as of now no such programs exist,” Brann said. 

According to Ouellette, local educational institutions asked Wolfden to wait to meet until receiving approval for the mine. 

The hearings will continue Monday evening and again on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

An additional public hearing is slated for 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 23 in Bangor.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...