The bill that would rewrite Maines metal mining regulations was rejected by the House of Representatives in a 109-36 vote.
The Portland Press Herald reported that the vote to reject the complex proposal was preceded by more than two hours of floor speeches. Opponents spoke with conviction that the rules wouldn’t do enough to protect against pollution in lakes and rivers, while leaving taxpayers with the cleanup costs. Proponents countered that existing laws have shut down an industry that could employ thousands of workers, including hundreds at an Aroostook County mountain.
The proposal received an 8-5 endorsement of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, after lawmakers spent an estimated 60 hours in public hearings and work sessions amid heavy lobbying from supporters and opponents. Aroostook Resources, a subsidiary of J.D. Irving, has spent nearly $70,000 lobbying this session for a regulatory change that could lead to the mining of Bald Mountain, which is rich in precious metals. Irving has been countered by lobbying from influential environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine League of Conservation Voters.
The pressure from outside interests fueled Thursday’s feisty floor debate. Legislators who supported the bill argued that the regulations were necessary to allow mining activity that is legal but logistically impossible because of conflicting regulations.
The House vote is a stinging defeat for the bill’s proponents and sets up the possibility that the bill will ultimately fail or be carried over until next year. Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the co-chairman of the environmental committee, played a key role in drafting the legislation. The Republican-controlled Senate could approve the bill, but it appears unlikely that the two chambers could resolve significant differences with the legislative session coming to a close.
The bill includes some site restrictions on mines as well as monitoring, closure and cleanup requirements on mining companies. The proposal would also require mining companies to provide “financial assurance” to cover potential environmental problems and require treatment of contamination for at least 20 years after a mine closes.
Lawmakers began reviewing Maine’s now 24-year-old mining rules in 2012 at the behest of J.D. Irving Ltd. and Aroostook County lawmakers.
Irving, the state’s largest landowner, owns the land and mineral rights on Bald Mountain, a remote spot 35 miles west of Presque Isle that contains deposits of gold, silver and other minerals.
While Bald Mountain has dominated discussion of the mining rules, the Maine Geological Survey lists 10 sites of “significant known metallic mineral deposits” in the state.
The DEP proposed a set of rules last year, but the Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected the rules and Republican Gov. Paul Le-Page vetoed a bill directing the department to revise the rules. The most recent rules are intended to end the legislative standoff.
Environmental groups said that the bill allows mining on some public reserved lots, which are treated differently than public reserved lands in some areas of Maine law.