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With Maine’s forested lands and iconic rocky shoreline, the notion that forestry and fishing were once the mainstays of Maine’s economy should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the state. But mining?

Well, yes – although you wouldn’t know it from looking at today’s employment figures.  But in addition to the geological phenomena that endowed Maine with its rocky soil and many lakes,  Maine was also blessed with an abundance of minerals from volcanic activity – at least in certain areas. In the late 1800s, Maine experienced something of a mini-boom in metallic mining – mining for iron, silver, copper, and zinc. However, a sudden drop in prices led to the abrupt decline of the industry, and Maine did not experience much mining activity until World War II.

In the mid-1970s, however, increased mineral exploration led to the development of several important caches, mainly copper, zinc, and lead. Those deposits have not been mined – yet. Why? The answer is complicated, but it has to do (at least partially) with the Callahan Mine, near Brooksville, ME in Hancock County.  After the zinc and copper mine ceased operation in 1972, the area was found to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, and lead, among other heavy metals. The Environmental Protection Agency began a remedial investigation in 2004, with remedial action beginning in 2010. Clean-up is on-going, with passive treatment systems installed within the tailings impoundment and the removal of contaminated soils, either disposed of off-site or placed within a confined aquatic disposal (CAD) cell in another abandoned mine pit (Goose Pond). Full cleanup is expected to cost at least $23 million.

Unfortunately, even though remediation activities are ongoing more than 40 years after the site closed, groundwater at the site is still considered unfit for human consumption, and shore birds and other organisms are at risk. Part of the former mine site is located within the Goose Pond Estuary.

Within this context, the Maine legislature passed mining restrictions in the early 1990s that effectively prohibited metal mining. As a result, any mining activity in Maine was restricted to non-metallic mining (quarrying for rock, for example), at least until 2012.  While there still has been no active metallic mining since the 1990s, there sure has been a lot of activity.

In 2012, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was directed by the Legislature to “modernize” the state’s 20 year old mining rules.  The new rules consisted of two parts: a section requiring permits for mineral exploration; and a section regarding the permitting process for mining-related activities.  The first part was adopted in 2013, but the second part was not approved by the legislature, hence creating an inconsistency between the existing mining rules and the Mining Act. The result has been a regulatory mess. In May of 2015, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resource Committee voted 8-5 to amend these rules again, but the resulting amendment failed to pass the Legislature.  By this time, both pro- and anti- mining positions were firmly entrenched.

Most recently, the Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously to endorse a new set of regulations.   The proposed regulations attempt to resolve some of the shortcomings that had been pointed out last year. However, questions remain.

As an environmental and natural resource economist, my job is to look at the potential costs and benefits of any proposed legislation.  On the benefits side are the potential jobs and increased tax revenue that could come about from any development. On the costs side, of course, are the possible negative effects on the environment.

Let’s take a look at the benefits side of the equation. Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for Irving (a mining company with interests in Bald Mountain, one of the sites at the center of this debate), suggested that allowing this type of mining in Maine could result in 300 direct jobs and 400 indirect jobs, and a projection of $126 million in state and local taxes. Given that the proposed mining area lies in Aroostook county, an area of the state that experiences chronic persistent poverty and currently has an unemployment rate of 5 percent (as compared to 3.8% statewide and only 3.1% in Cumberland County), that is no small benefit.

But who will get these jobs?  Mining is not primarily a blue collar occupation any more -in fact, writes Phillipe Dolzone , a writer for the Balance, an online financial advice site, “The increasing complexity of the mining process and involved technology nowadays requires a much higher level of skills, including computer literacy.  As a result, most of the mining groups will more likely hire recently graduated students from high school programs in mining or technical school programs.”  Currently, Maine has none of these. So the first step in ensuring these jobs go to locals is to encourage any mining company that wants to establish a presence in Maine to incorporate a local training program, perhaps by partnering with a local Community college or trade school. One of the pitfalls of this “potential jobs” argument is just that- the jobs are potential. The job of a good economic development director is to ensure that those promised jobs do, in fact, materialize.

While a return to the days of mining camps is unlikely in Maine, companies may find it less costly to import talent from elsewhere rather than to foster it locally.  That may also be a boon to the area -if families come to Aroostook county for the mines and decide to stay, that itself is economic development.  It really depends on how long the mining activity is expected to last at a particular site. That,  in turn,  depends on the amount of reserves at the site and the rate of extraction, which in turn is determined by the price of the minerals and the cost of the technology needed to remove them.

That was the easy part. Now to look at the potential costs. Open pit mining,  which is the most common method and that most likely to be used in Maine, has the potential to expose radioactive elements,  as well as potentially contaminate groundwater and surface water. As minerals may be present in small quantities in a geographic area,  large quantities of ore need to be refined to get at it. Contaminants may be released into the water through separation of the minerals from the surrounding rock, where slurry containing mine tailings, water, and pulverized rock (which may in itself contain toxic or radioactive materials) is created. Other potential environmental costs are disruption to ecosystems and endangered species habitat,  large scale water extraction, and erosion.   Finally, some environmental groups have expressed concern that mining activity could affect Maine’s tourism industry.

To minimize these costs (and to maximize net benefit), the tailings or residue from mining activity must be contained and disposed of in a way that doesn’t adversely affect sediments, groundwater or surface water. Much of the waste that is generated is likely to be toxic or radioactive, and so proper disposal is essential.

Likewise, in order to minimize the harm done,  proper siting techniques need to be used. The mine’s footprint, including any access roads, must be sited in such a way that they don’t impact sensitive areas or endangered species habitat, or have the potential to increase flooding,  deforestation,  or erosion.

The biggest issues in the current fight over mining rules in Maine seem to be about both where mining can and can’t occur,  and what safeguards (environmental and financial) are in place to ensure restoration of the site after mining activities cease, as well as to pay for clean up should a disaster occur.

There are potential benefits and costs to mining in Maine.  The job of good policy is to ensure that institutions are in place to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs – as well as to ensure an equitable distribution of costs and benefits.  These include policies on local hiring, training and education, proper siting, and financial safeguards. Only then should each proposal be evaluated on its own merits.

I personally would like to see more economic development in Aroostook County. But only if that development does not come at excessive cost to the environment and to other industry.

What are your thoughts? Post them here!

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