Mining rulemaking process begins; Committee rejects water bill

Rulemaking process begins amid increasing interest in mineral resources, and increasing pushback against companies wanting to dig them out of the ground.
A pair of hands holding a crystal.
Mary Freeman holds a piece of the lithium-bearing crystal Spodumene from the pit in Newry. Photo by Garrick Hoffman.
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 state will begin a rulemaking process next week aimed at clarifying what counts as a metallic mineral, changes prompted by the discovery of a massive lithium deposit in Newry that the Monitor has been reporting on for the past two years.

The changes, which will have to be approved by the citizen Board of Environmental Protection as well as the state Legislature, would allow the mining of certain metallic minerals to be exempt from the state’s stringent mining regulations so long as a mining operation could prove that it wouldn’t pollute the environment around it.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim laid out the proposed criteria for exemption in a recent memo to the Board. In order to be exempt from the mining act, an operation would have to prove “to the Department’s satisfaction,” that mine waste generated would not:

• violate state water quality standards

• generate waste with the potential to create acid or alkali rock drainage

• release or expose radioactive or other materials that could endanger human health or the environment

In addition to those requirements, any processing of the material — crushing, grinding, sorting or storage — outside of the pit would have to be inside a building or shelter that prevents any water from mixing with the waste rock or minerals. Chemical processing would still be regulated under the current metallic mining rules.

Applicants for exemption would have to submit two site investigation plans to DEP, including plans for water quality evaluation and geologic testing.

A mining operation that’s exempt from the metallic mineral rules would still be regulated under another law, such as the state’s quarrying standards.

Those standards are far less stringent, and meeting them is also (currently, anyway) less costly for developers: a quarry application costs $250, while initial processing fees for a mining permit are $500,000, plus at least $20,000 each year for a permit.

Representatives from the DEP are set to appear before the citizen Board of Environmental Protection next Thursday, December 7, to discuss the proposed changes. The Board isn’t taking public comment next week, but this will be the start of a long process — expected to take at least a year — in which there will be several opportunities for the public to weigh in.

The rulemaking process will be underway as there is increasing interest in the state’s mineral resources, and increasing pushback against the companies that want to dig them out of the ground. It also gets going as lawmakers consider altering the mining excise tax, with some advocating last session for ensuring the state benefits financially from the new metal quarries, either through permitting fees or excise taxes or both.

If you’re looking to learn more about lithium and its role in batteries and beyond, it’s well worth a visit to the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in Bethel, which is putting on a special exhibit looking at the metal in Maine and around the world.

Committee rejects water bill

In other news on an issue Climate Monitor has been following, lawmakers this week rejected a bill that would have limited the length of contracts between large-scale water extractors and municipalities.

The vote on Wednesday was close, with five members of the Energy, Utility and Technologies Committee voting in favor of contract limits and seven voting against them (watch the full work session). One member was absent.

Several lawmakers who voted against the limits said they were concerned about water extraction in the face of a changing climate but that they didn’t feel this bill was the fix.

“It’s not because I don’t believe in in climate change or the threat to the aquifers, but I think choosing 10 years — or whatever length you choose — five, seven, is very arbitrary and I don’t think it’ll accomplish the goal,” said Committee Chair Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York.

“I think we need to look at this as a resource protection issue and figure out another way to address this.”

Rep. Valli Geiger, D-Rockland, disagreed. “Locking that resource into a long term contract at what are very low rates does not serve ratepayers, or Maine aquifers, or reflect the increasing value and scarcity of freshwater,” said Geiger.

“We get it wrong all the time. And if we have a frequent opportunity to relook we get a chance to make it right.”

The full Legislature will take up the bill when it reconvenes in January.

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Kate Cough

Kate Cough is editor of The Maine Monitor. Before that, she 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.
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