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The Plan for New Mining Rules in Maine Spark Protests from Environmental Groups
09/28/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

This spring the Maine Legislature adopted legislation to revise rules for mineral mining at the request of timberland owner J.D. Irving. The Canadian company, which is Maine's largest landowner, has identified a potential open pit mining site on land it owns on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County. But the process and the plan are vigorously opposed by environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The NRCM is bringing an international mining watchdog to Maine tonight to amplify that message.

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Ramsey Hart, of MiningWatch Canada, has a few strong words of caution about mining for sulfide deposits that contain metals such as copper and zinc. He says it's economically risky because the minerals market is so volatile. And he says it's environmentally risky for areas such as Bald Mountain that contain pristine watersheds. Bald Mountain is located in the headwaters of the Fish River and Fish River Chain of Lakes, internationally known for its cold water brook trout fishery.

Ramsey Hart: "Deposits like the one at Bald Mountain contain a lot of sulfur within the rocks. The mining operation will expose the rocks and blast them and grind them into very small particles and that exposes the minerals in them to the atmosphere and to water and to bacteria for the first time and they become reactive and the sulfur which used to be safely locked in the rocks now becomes sulfuric acid and leaches out of those rocks."

Hart is an ecologist with a background in watershed management who has evaluated mining proposals and operations across Canada. He is also works on policy and legal reform around the world. He says open pit mining creates hundreds of millions of tons of waste that would likely be stored at the site. And while he says that there is money to be made in mining and mine workers can be paid quite well...there are few operations that have been able to reduce their environmental footprint.

Ramsey Hart: "With large open pit mines with the kind of deposit that this is, with the really high sulfur content, it's impossible to prevent environmental impacts. They can be mitgated with people on site and operating facilities and managing them but those people will have to be around looking after that for a long, long time."

Irving has been operating in Aroostook County for more than 65 years and company spokesperson Mary Keith says the company thinks its proposal has the potential to create hundreds of jobs in a region that has seen a steady out-migration of young people in search of work. She says if Irving is given the opportunity to proceed with its plan the focus will be on protecting water quality and the environment.

Mary Keith: "We're focused on doing it right. We're a company that is protecting many hundreds of miles of water course buffers in the state as well as deer wintering habitat and we're doing voluntary conservation efforts as well as improving our understanding of biodiversity etcetera. You know, this is the way that we work and we would see bringing the same commitment, the same rigor to what we would do in terms of the mining operation."

Bald Mountain would be Irving's first foray into mining so the company has no track record in the industry. But Hart says he and other Canadian environmentalists have been less than impressed with Irving's forest practices. State Senator Troy Jackson has also been a vocal Irving critic of the company's hiring practices in Maine's North Woods. But Jackson says he supported the legislation to revise the state's mining rules because he doesn't want to shut the door on possible job creation.

Troy Jackson: "I'm not a hundred percent sold but I certainly, if there's a way to do it that we can have some jobs up here than it's something that I gotta support."

Jackson says the site, which is only about 25 miles from his house, is a popular place for hunting and fishing. He says he doesn't want to see it spoiled and he's counting on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to safeguard it. Next month the DEP is expected to select a contractor to develop the rules. The process is expected to take up to two years and will include an opportunity for public comment. Ramsey Hart, meanwhile, will be giving a public address about his concerns about open pit mining tonight at 7:00 at the University of Southern Maine.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally scheduled to be broadcast on Thursday, September 27, 2012 but technical difficulties moved the air date to Friday, September 28, 2012]

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