If the LePage administration, Canadian billionaire JD Irving, developers for the mining industry and many legislators have their way, “open-pit/mountaintop removal mining” will become a reality in the state of Maine. Mining would include sulfide ores, such as copper, silver, gold, nickel and zinc extracted from rock deposits.

In 2012, JD Irving, Maine’s largest land-owner, pushed through legislation that would allow open-pit mountaintop removal mining. JD Irving has no mining experience.

Later, LD 1302 was passed by the Maine House of Representatives to tighten some of the mining rules. This bill was favored by many environmental groups but the Senate opposed it, claiming the regulations were too stringent. The Senate’s rejection of the bill was the result of heavy lobbying by Jim Mitchell and others on behalf of JD Irving.

A bipartisan group of legislators urged Maine’s Department of the Environment Commissioner Patricia Aho to address many of the mining concerns. A draft of Chapter 200 on metallic mineral exploration and advanced exploration and mining is being developed by the DEP. They are presenting new rules and regulations to the five-member Board of Environmental Protection. The board members listen to the recommendations, add their own, and occasionally express concerns and require clarification about a suggestion.

Once the draft agreement is completed it will be sent to the bipartisan joint standing committee of the Environment and Natural Resource Committee to be voted on. If they agree and approve, it will go to the full legislature for a vote.

The meetings between the DEP and the BEP are open to the public. Yet, the public cannot participate by asking questions that could clarify an issue and cannot comment, but can only listen.

Listening is a difficult process for many reasons. First, mining is not new to Maine. The Callahan Mine in Brooksville – a Superfund site – operated from 1969-1972. When it closed, it left an estimated cleanup cost of $23 million and most of it has not been cleaned up yet. After 40 years, contaminated soil and sediment remain and are risking the lives of people and wildlife. Cancer causing chemicals such as PCBs are spread throughout the site. The Environmental Protection Agency warns people to stay away from the Goose Pond/River – a large estuary that is 100 percent lethal to sandworms, urchins, fish, crabs, clams, and salt grass. The Kerramerican mine in Blue Hill ceased operations in 1977. Investigations indicated that the site was leaching 10-12,000 pounds of zinc per year. Zinc is very toxic to fish and aquatic life. Finally, in 2006 the owners of the mine and DEP agreed to clean up the area and in 2008 it was recapped. The site is currently maintained to make sure the cap is working. This process took 35 years. How much damage was caused during this time to humans and the flora and fauna? However, when the mining company began this mining operation they promised 200-300 jobs and said the mine would operate for 10-20 years. In reality, a million tons were mined, using about 100 employees in a five-year period.

Second, the Bald Mountain site in north central Maine is one of the current targeted sites for sulfide mining. The sulfide deposits found in volcanic rock are found throughout Maine.

The northern woods — the most continuous pristine wilderness east of the Mississippi — would be logged and blasted. Roads would be built to accommodate the huge trucks hauling toxic debris and mining equipment. Other mining sites are: Katahdin Iron Works, an area near Moosehead Lake; Mount Chase, near Shin Ponds and Seboeis River in Penobscot County; Maple and Hovey Mountains near Number Nine Lake and the headwaters on the Meduxnekeag River in Aroostook County; the Ledge Ridge and Alder Pond regions of the Western Mountains; and the Warren and Pembroke coastal areas of Midcoast and Downeast.

Third, Henry John Bear, Representative of the Maliseet people to the Maine Legislature gave testimony at the open hearing on Oct. 17 indicating “that the Meduxnekeag River (St. John Watershed area) with all its lakes, tributaries, streams, brooks and drains — an area of 20 million acres including present day northern Maine — is Maliseet tribal land. Valid and enforceable treaties exist, especially the Watertown Treaty of 1776. This treaty is honored today." According to Rep. Bear it was recognized just recently by the Maine House and Senate. This Maliseet claim raises doubts about the legal status of any development on tribal lands.

Fourth, sulfide mining in such large areas on such a massive scale will affect all forms of life. The materials left over after ore has been removed from the ore bearing rocks react with air and water to form sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid is highly corrosive and seeps into the ground and surface water, damaging water quality and killing aquatic creatures. Once the ground water is poisoned it will affect water quality in lakes, streams, rivers and our drinking water — ultimately flowing into the Gulf of Maine and beyond.

Fifth, pulverizing rocks unearth toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury and copper sulfate. These contaminants leach into waters causing acid mine drainage, a slimy orange coating that builds up in the beds of affected waterways. Mining companies attempt to contain the corrosive and toxic waste by establishing tailing ponds. These ponds get filled with rain and other natural precipitation, spill over and cause pollution to waterways. This water pollution would affect the many businesses and families who depend on fishing, guiding and all recreational jobs that depend on clean water. The recreation economy for fishing alone brought in $260 million and 4,300 jobs to Maine’s economy.

Sixth, the toxic water will find its way into people’s wells. The arsenic and lead remnants of sulfide mining are known carcinogens and can cause neurological problems to humans and wildlife, such as cancer, nerve and brain damage, developmental disabilities and other costly chronic diseases. These toxins build up in fish tissue and are passed through the food chain. Maine’s native brook trout would be particularly at risk for genetic mutation. There would be a decrease in the viability of eggs, limited reproduction capacity and birth defects.

Seventh, the draft rules do not require air-quality monitoring during mining operations. Mining creates large amounts of dust. This dust and the toxic particulates can cause and exacerbate asthma and other breathing problems. Monitoring the air quality would not be done and the only way to determine whether toxic levels are being emitted is if people become ill.

In other words, illness would be the indicator for polluted air. Yet no one knows how serious or life-threatening the illnesses could be.

Eighth, the draft rules are not favorable to taxpayers because they allow mining companies to treat waste water for 30 years after closure of the mine. This huge time period makes it more likely that a mining company will run out of money, shifting costs to the taxpayer and risking further contamination to Maine’s water and air. Clean water quality compliance requirements are also lacking in the draft rules. If a mining company violates its license by contaminating water, it should have to fix the problem before our waterways become affected. The rules allow contamination to continue for months without any corrective action.

It seems to me that these meetings to draft new open pit and mountaintop removal mining rules, which would degrade our health, clean water, air, wildlife with harmful cancer causing toxins for generations, create climate injustice for the people and wildlife of Maine. It is not the way taxpayer’s money should be spent.

The draft of rules that could change and eradicate our hunting, fishing and recreational industries, causing economic disasters and hardships for many, is not a viable plan to create a few jobs. It is conceivable that existing jobs would be eliminated.

Once mining begins, as mentioned previously, the forest is clear-cut, the roads are built, the blasting begins, the toxins are released — there will be no turning back.

There is no reversal process. We must not allow this magnificent gift of beautiful lands to be taken away from us. They must not be decimated, exploited, left barren and dead — a wasteland so familiar to states like West Virginia and many others  including huge land masses that have been destroyed in Canada’s boreal forest for tar sands mining. We must not allow JD Irving, fossil fuel magnate and owner of one of the most polluting corporations on earth, to take Maine’s wilderness for his purposes and the purposes of those who will make tons of money from selling the materials they mine. These people will not give anything back to the state or the communities they damage. We will be left with the mess. In addition, global climate change will be heightened and intensified.

Please contact your representatives and senators, tell them to vote "No" to the draft rules for open pit and mountaintop removal mining in Maine.

Phyllis Coelho