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Maine Mining Proposal Debate Pits Jobs Against the Environment
03/30/2012   Reported By: Keith Shortall

Opponents of a last-minute proposal to change Maine's mining regulations to accommodate a strip-mine project in northern Maine turned out at a public hearing at the State House today. They say the bill is being rushed through the Legislature in order to benefit a single company, and if approved, could expose Maine's environment to significant harm. Supporters, however, including one veteran lawmaker from Aroostook County, say the bill will contain safegaurds against environmental damage, and will create several hundred badly-needed jobs.

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The proposal, sponsored by state Democratic Sen. John Martin, of Eagle Lake, was first introduced several weeks ago. The version that's taken shape over the past week has grown to about 20 pages, and would establish "a comprehensive statutory framework to replace current mining law."

Supporters told members of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee that the bill offers a chance to update Maine's mining regulations, last revised back in 1991, but also creates an important opportunity for northern Maine.

"I don't know much about mining, but I'd like to remind people of the challenges we face in Aroostook County," said Rep. Ken Therriault, who represents the residents of Frenchville, Madawaska and surrounding communities in the Maine House. He says the metal mine's developer, Aroostook Timerlands, a division of JD Irving, is interested in extracting gold, silver and other valuable metals from a site at Bald Mountain, near Portage lake.

The company has said the project would create upwards of 300 new jobs. Therriault told members of the Legislature's Environmental and Natural Resources Committee that the region needs help. "One of our main challenges we face is keeping our young people in our area. All too often they have to leave to find employment. We must focus on job creation and support for businesses to expand and prosper," he said.

Among those who drove down from the county to testify was Kevin Charette, a member of the town council of Ashland, where he says 43 percent of the population is on some form of assistance. Charette says he understands the issues that have been raised about environmental risk, but he says the town's population has declined by almost 50 percent since the 1970's.

"I am concerned about the environment. I understand it's an issue. I fish. I swim, I kayak right in that lake," he says. "I believe that we need mining in our area. We need the work. People need to survive. There's nobody in Ashland that's asking to get rich--or in Portage or Masardis or Oxbow or Nashville Plantation--we just need to make a living."

But opponents say the environmental track record of metal mines in Maine, Vermont and other states should send a strong message. "I come before you today to ask that you learn from Utah's mistakes, as well as those made in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where brook trout are essentially extinct," said Ron Joseph, a wildlife biologist who says he began his career in Utah back in the 70's assessing the impacts of open pit mining on fish and wildlife there.

He says Maine should learn the lessons of Utah, where he says heavy metal contamimation from those mines is still being found in the environment. "The bill purportedly is to create jobs in Aroostook County, and I support that, but what's before you as a bill is a rush job, one that pits precious metals owned by a private company against precious resources owned by the public," Joseph said.

"It feels forced, that's for sure," says Sean Mahoney, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. Mahoney says the bill has come very late in the legislative session, giving little time to assess its potential impact. And it's not clear why there's a rush, particularly since Irving that's proposing the mine at hand has made it very clear that it doesn't expect to start any kind of mine development for a couple of years. So why not wait and do it properly?"

Supporters, including state Sen. John Martin of Eagle Lake, say the committee has had ample time to review the bill, and that the rule-making for the new law will be carefully crafted over many months. And they say Irving will need a long lead time to begin the application and planning process for the mine project.

The committee is expected to take up the amended bill against next week.



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