Mining company’s water treatment study has “a lot of shortcomings”

The petition is Wolfden’s second attempt at a rezoning and the first serious attempt to test Maine’s mining laws.
Trees and a pond visible at Mt. Chase
The view from Mt. Chase, looking toward Upper and Lower Shin Ponds, part of the area that would be rezoned, and Mt. Katahdin. Photo by Kate Cough.
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to stay informed of Maine environmental news.

The Maine Land Use Planning Commission held the first public hearings on a proposal from Canadian mining company Wolfden Resources Corp. to rezone 374 acres of land north of Patten, where it wants to mine for zinc and copper. The hearings were held in Millinocket; there will also be a hearing on Monday in Bangor.

(Watch all of the proceedings, which include more than 20 hours of testimony from the public, attorneys for Wolfden, and formal intervenors in the case.)

The petition is Wolfden’s second attempt at a rezoning and the first serious attempt to test Maine’s 2017 mining laws, which are considered the strictest in the nation. The company’s first petition was withdrawn two years ago after commissioners indicated they would reject it based on the recommendation of staff.

Regulators are in the process of amending the mining law to exempt certain metals from the rules (provided developers can show they wouldn’t pollute the surrounding area), but those changes likely won’t affect Wolfden’s plans.

The land must be rezoned before the company can apply for a mining permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The commission expects to make a decision by February of next year; if the rezoning is approved the company will still have to apply to DEP for a mining permit, which could take years.

Wolfden also owns land in the Washington County town of Pembroke, which banned industrial mining last year after learning the company wanted to mine for silver there. (Wolfden CEO Ron Little briefly invoked Pembroke during this week’s hearings, saying that while “Pickett Mountain is our cornerstone, the silver project down near Pembroke is a long-term potential project.”)

This is not the first time commissioners have been faced with reclassifying an area for a use that isn’t currently permitted — Wolfden attorney Juliet Browne noted on Tuesday that commissioners approved the rezoning of 16,000 acres as part of the Plum Creek development proposal nearly two decades ago, nearly 3,000 acres for the Kibby wind project and 600 acres for the Three Corners Solar Project.

As with Wolfden, those rezonings were just the first step in the regulatory process — developers were also required to get permits from additional state, and in some cases, federal agencies. A rezoning does not guarantee a project will be built — the Plum Creek proposal has largely fizzled, with none of the proposed development built, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Commissioner Everett Worcester summed up the primary concern about six hours into the meeting on Tuesday. “It’s all about water quality.” But Worcester also mused that if Wolfden is never allowed to move forward in the process, DEP staff will never get to evaluate its water treatment plans.

“If you’re held to these high standards, but you never get to them because this commission never moves on to give it to the DEP to run through the process to see what might happen, it’s kind of like a catch-22.”

Opponents of Wolfden’s plan say that even at this early stage the company has failed to show that its plans can ensure the mine won’t generate acid mine drainage, either from mine walls, waste rock, ores and tailings.

Ann Maest, vice president of a Colorado environmental consulting firm who has studying mining operations around the world for decades, said the water treatment study included in Wolfden’s petition “has a lot of shortcomings.” The modeling, said Maest, “was really poor…a lot of the key parameters are missing.”

While the technology the company is proposing (reverse osmosis) is a common one, Wolfden has not put forward an example of a mine that can treat water to Maine’s standard, said Stu Levit, a staff scientist with The Center for Science in Public Participation, and Levit said the cost of treating the water could be very high.

“It’s easy for a company to promise to do something; it’s another to actually plan, design and deliver it and demonstrate that it is possible at a particular site.”

The Bangor Daily News reported that, of the 19 speakers on Tuesday evening, 11 urged commissioners to deny the petition, “citing degradation of natural resources, not enough evidence that Wolfden has the ability to operate the mine safely, enough jobs in the community with many businesses already unable to get the help they need, and tourism growing as the region’s new economy.”

Proponents of the project cite the jobs it would bring to the region, which were highlighted by attorneys for the company at the hearing on Wednesday, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Asked whether she thought this was a “good place” for a mine, Maest replied that her primary concern was the proximity of the waters near the planned operation.

“We have to admit that there will be some pollution if we want these metals,” said Maest. But given Maine’s high water quality standards and how close the proposed mine is to these waters, “It would be exceedingly difficult to not cause an adverse effect to water quality.”


Kate Cough

Kate Cough is editor of The Maine Monitor. She previously served as enterprise editor for The Monitor while also covering energy and the environment and writing the weekly Climate Monitor newsletter. Before joining The Monitor, Kate was a beat reporter for The Ellsworth American and digital media strategist for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. Kate graduated with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Magna Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College. Kate is an eighth generation Mainer, who lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, daughter, and dogs.
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