AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- New mining regulations drafted by the Maine environmental department will weaken the land and water protections on the books and won't protect the environment from sulfuric acid and other toxins, activists said.
At a hearing Thursday held by the state Board of Environmental Protection, environmental groups, residents and lawmakers pushed back against the proposed overhaul of the state's mining regulations brought on by renewed interest in metallic mining of gold, silver, copper and other metals in Aroostook County's Bald Mountain.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine and others criticize the new regulations. But supporters said opponents merely want to stymie future mining operations in Maine altogether, an industry they say will bring jobs and opportunities to the struggling northern Maine economy.
"This is certainly an opportunity to take a really good look at what we can do to foster more opportunities, more business," said Phil Daggett, owner of Hewes Brook Lodge, a sporting facility about 15 miles from Bald Mountain. "If there is ever a time that we need to step forward and work this issue, it's now."
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 calling for the overhaul the 2-decade-old state mining regulations. The current regulations have been described as "de-facto ban on mining," said Thomas Doyle, an attorney representing Aroostook Resources, Inc.
Metallic mining has been dormant in Maine for several decades, but J.D. Irving Ltd., the owner of Bald Mountain, has begun considering the possibility of mining on the land and pushed to write new regulations more favorable to the industry. The company says mining Bald Mountain could bring as many as 700 jobs to the region.
Shelly Mountain, a resident of Mapleton, said she has long believed that Bald Mountain could bring strong economic benefits to the area. "But without strong environmental laws, mining would devastate the beauty of Aroostook, which will further depress the economy," she told the board.
Environmental advocates are urging the board to strengthen the proposed rules to limit the areas where groundwater can be contaminated. They also want to require companies to pay 100 percent of the assurances for cleanup costs up front — instead of 50 percent, as is being proposed — to ensure that taxpayers are not left footing the bill.
"We should not weaken Maine's rules at Irving's request just so it can mine Bald Mountain by open pit," Nick Bennett, a scientist with NRCM, said in his written testimony. "We need strict and clear rules that protect the whole state from mining pollution."
The Department of Environmental Protection says while it's open to suggestions for further strengthening the proposal, it believes the rules are based on science and meet the requirements set by law.
"In each and every case, we worked to base our proposal on the best available science and craft a proposal that is protective of the environment to the maximum extent possible," Jeff Crawford, rule-making coordinator for the department, told the board.
The rules will likely spur a heated battle in the Legislature as lawmakers are given final approval. The department is expected to adopt the rules by January and will then send them to the Democratic-controlled State.
Even then, any mining operations are likely far off in Maine. J.D. Irving says it still doesn't know if mining is feasible at Bald Mountain, but any operation probably wouldn't happen for at least five years.
Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin