Battle Over Bald Mountain

A controversial new law – aimed at the Aroostook County mount – loosens state regulations for open-pit mining.

By Jeff Clark


[B]ald Mountain is almost as tall as the pile of broken dreams it has created. Ever since a large, but low-quality, deposit of copper, zinc, gold, and silver was discovered there in the late 1970s, mining companies and landowners have sunk tens of millions of dollars into the mountain located in the remote North Woods west of Ashland. Everyone has gone away disappointed.

Now, in what was undoubtedly the most controversial move seen in this year’s session of the legislature, the state’s highly restrictive 1991 mining law and regulations are being completely replaced by a new measure that makes environmental permitting for open-pit mining on Bald Mountain much easier to accomplish. Supporters claim the mine will bring three hundred desperately needed new jobs to chronically depressed Aroostook County. Opponents, including just about every environmental organization in the state, are outraged at the loosening of groundwater contamination standards and fear the acid runoff from a mine will destroy some of the finest brook trout streams in the United States.

“The rules written under the old law made it impossible to open a mine in Maine,” declares Representative John Martin, the Eagle Lake Democrat and former Speaker of the House who is one of the most powerful politicians in Maine — and chief sponsor of the new mining bill. He introduced the bill at the behest of J.D. Irving, Limited, the Canada-based timber and energy conglomerate that owns Bald Mountain and some 1.25 million acres of timberland in Maine. “The way they were written, a mining company could never have met the [required] water quality standards. Today with the new technologies available you can get to that level. . . . And Aroostook County needs those jobs.”

“I’m not worried about the water they treat,” responds Jeff Reardon, the New England conservation director for Trout Unlimited. “I’m worried about the groundwater and runoff water they can’t reach to treat.” Reardon emphasizes that the literal mountains of sulfide-bearing waste rock and tailings excavated from the mine will continue to leach highly acidic water for decades, if not centuries, after the mine is closed, while contaminated water in the pit will inevitably find its way into ground-water flowing from a mountain that is at the headwaters of Maine’s premier trout fishing region. “If you look at Bald Mountain through brook-trout-colored glasses, [the deposits] could not be in a worse place,” he says.

Adding to opponents’ displeasure was the way the bill was presented. Martin and his cosponsor, Aroostook Democratic Senator Troy Jackson, brought the bill to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in mid-March with barely twenty-four hours notice to the public during a short session that was supposed to end only three weeks later. The bill’s proponents insisted that it had to be passed immediately to allow Irving the flexibility it needed to develop the mine. Opponents said they needed more time to determine the bill’s ramifications and to consult with out-of-state experts, since Maine has no native open-pit mine expertise.

“I was really shocked, actually panicked, because the bill did a number of really dangerous things,” notes Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). “It greatly increased the amount of groundwater that could be polluted. It eliminated all the existing mining regulations immediately, while the new regulations wouldn’t go into effect for almost two years. It looked like a blank check for the mining industry.”

The new law also stretched the license period from the current five years to thirty years and eliminated the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) from the permit process. Although LURC nominally oversees all development in the Unorganized Territories, where Bald Mountain is located, all the responsibility for permitting now rests solely in the hands of the Department of Environmental Protection.

“Even [Senator Tom] Saviello, the committee chair, said he didn’t think a mining bill would happen until next year,” Reardon notes. “Clearly there had been discussions about changing the mining rules, but apparently they were all held behind closed doors.”

Attorney Thomas Doyle, of the Portland law firm Pierce Atwood, led the effort to pass the bill on behalf of Irving. The final decision to move ahead with legislation, he said, wasn’t made until early March. “When we learned our sponsor wanted to move forward, it all happened in a very short period of time,” he says.

Asked if the bill was too rushed, Martin says, “If the legislature had ended on time, you’re right. What I said was, we’re going to be here for a long time yet. As it turned out, we had a lot of time [the legislature didn’t end until mid-May] and the committee had no other piece of legislation to consider.”

Despite the short notice, environmental groups managed to persuade the committee to amend some of the most egregious language, tightening water quality standards and ensuring that the existing regulations would stay in effect until new rules are adopted in January 2014. It passed both the House and Senate in mid-April and was signed into law by Governor Paul LePage.

The need for speed had observers speculating well after the public debate ended. Even Irving officials admit that little will happen at Bald Mountain for several years while they consider how to proceed with development — either in partnership with a mining company or hiring the expertise they need to go it alone. Although the bill garnered bipartisan support in both houses, some legislators wonder off the record if it would have passed as written and as handily in a legislature controlled by Democrats.

Maine geologist John S. Cummings first found the mineral deposits on Bald Mountain in 1977, according to a history of Maine mining by the Maine Geological Survey. The 36-million-ton copper-zinc lode was considered a world-class discovery at the time and generated considerable excitement in Maine and the national mining community. The deposit is in a belt of high-sulfide volcanic rock that stretches 130 miles across north-central Maine and is fifty to sixty miles wide.

Over the decades since, several mining companies as well as various landowners have spent more than $25 million drilling test bores and surveying the 1,184-foot mountain to determine the deposit’s value. In fact, the 1991 mining law was spurred by news that Blackhawk Mining was interested in developing the site at a time when Maine lacked even rudimentary mining regulations.

Mining advocates point out that Maine has a long history of extracting valuable stuff from the ground, from limestone and granite to tourmaline and amethysts to lead and gold. They usually are not so eager to note the damage some of those mines have left behind, such as the Callahan Mining Corporation copper mine in Brooksville that turned into a federal Superfund cleanup site after its former owners abandoned it.

“Mining is a very cyclical business,” points out the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s Bennett. “The history of mining is that a company comes in and operates a mine for a while, then metal prices drop, and the company goes bankrupt and splits, leaving the mess behind for someone else to clean up.”

Maine’s previous mining bill required that companies set up a trust fund to finance restoration of a mine site and ongoing environmental monitoring after the mine closed. The new bill eliminates the trust fund and allows a variety of financial instruments to be used, including letters of credit, a surety bond, or a certificate of deposit, without enveloping them in a trust. That lack of protection deeply troubles Bennett and others, who fear that the assets could disappear along with the mining company.

“The profit margins in the metals market are very narrow,” notes Benjamin Townsend, who worked at Bald Mountain in 1980. He is now an Augusta-based attorney, and he testified against the bill during hearings before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “Any change in prices or fuel costs can make a significant difference in the economic viability of a mining operation. Mining companies are very quick to walk away; that’s a key point.”

J.D. Irving representatives, including company president James Irving in a speech at the University of Maine at Fort Kent in May, have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to guarding Maine’s environment. James Irving went so far as to say that if he couldn’t drink the water coming from the end of the wastewater treatment pipe, the mine wouldn’t be built. “If we can’t build this mine in an environmentally responsible way, we’ll go back to planting trees,” says Anthony Hourihan, J.D. Irving Woodlands director of land development.

Hourihan, whose LinkedIn profile describes his job as “identify[ing] and develop[ing] new business opportunities associated with the company’s land assets in Canada and the United States that will drive cash flows,” says Irving has no other mining opportunities in Maine “that I am aware of.” He says the company is moving ahead with economic analyses and considering various development strategies.

The fight over open-pit mining now moves to rule making before the Department of Environmental Protection. Reardon, Bennett, and others expect that the process will eat up significant portions of their time for the next eighteen months. “I used to tell my colleagues from other states in Trout Unlimited, ‘Thank God there’s no oil in Maine, no natural gas in Maine, no coal in Maine,’ when they were dealing with all the problems associated with them,” Reardon says with an ironic laugh. “Spoke too soon, didn’t I?”