AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine Lawmakers have worked for weeks on an effort to overhaul the state's mining regulations. But it was mostly opponents that showed up at an unusual second public hearing on the same legislation.
And it appears that the committee is still divided on the issue, even after weeks of meetings and discussions.
You can’t talk about mining regulations without a little history. In 2012, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the first overhaul of mining laws since 1991, instructing the Department of Environmental Protection to develop regulations for large-scale mining.
Those proposed rules came out in January of 2014, but, by then, the political make-up of the Legislature had changed. Democrats were in control and there were concerns the rules were too weak and posed too great a risk to the environment.
So the Legislature sent the rules back to the DEP for modification. This session, the Legislature is evenly controlled by both parties, and DEP Commissioner Patty Aho thinks that the changes emerging from some on the committee strike the right balance. "Your work on the provisionally-accepted rules has actually made them more clear and easier to understand by all involved," Aho said.
Also supporting the proposals is Theresa Fowler, the executive director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce. Fowler says mining has changed and technology has improved so that good jobs can be created without posing the environmental problems of the past.
"Technology has improved over the past hundreds of years, as has the understanding of the consequences of actions," Fowler said. "I get frustrated every time I come to these hearings because we hear about the disasters of Callahan and Blue Hill, And we are not dealing with apples and oranges."
While the legislation would address mining anywhere in the state, the underlying issue driving the rules change is really one project: New Brunswick-based JD Irving Ltd. wants to develop a mine near Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, and that prompted several area residents to oppose the legislation. Alice Bolstridge of Presque Isle testified against it at the first hearing and says she has not been swayed since.
"Since the mining bill draft became available, just a little over a week ago, I have read it several times and researched as much as I could," Bolstridge said. "I am not reassured by any of it, that it can adequately protect the environment."
Bolstridge was joined by several others who said the changes don't do enough to protect the environment. Rep. Bob Duchene, a Democrat from Hudson, asked opponent Ellery Burrow to clarify his position.
"When you read through the rules, what jumped out at you as saying, 'Oh, that’s way too weak?' " Duchene asked.
"If you want to devote three hours, four hours, to this, we can do this," Burrow responded. "Ah, no - in broad-brush terms, so many areas seemed to have words that didn’t nail things down precisely."
Several environmental advocacy groups praised some of the changes proposed, but also pointed to problems. And the committee itself is split on the issue. Rep. John Martin, a Democrat from Eagle Lake, helped draft the compromise proposal.
"I wish people would be honest with themselves," Martin said. "If they are opposed to mining, they ought to say so from the beginning and forget trying to work on a piece of legislation which they have no interest of ever supporting. I suspect they are even opposed to mining gravel."
That brought a sharp retort from Rep. Denise Harlow, a Portland Democrat. "Just because you are voting against something, I think you might still have some valid ideas," Harlow said. "And I did say that I am not planning on voting for this, and have been honest."
It’s likely that when the legislation finally reaches the full Legislature, many of the arguments brought up in the two public hearings will be echoed in lengthy floor debates in the House and Senate.