FORT KENT – Approximately 300 people filled Fox Auditorium at the University of Maine at Fort Kent on May 3, participating in the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s latest Board of Visitor’s Business Breakfast Series informational forum.
The event featured Jim Irving, president of J.D. Irving, Limited, speaking about the future of mining in Maine, and specifically on the Bald Mountain mining proposal near Ashland, in a presentation titled Maine’s Natural Resources Economy: Opportunity for Growth in Aroostook County.
The presentation primarily functioned to inform the public about the most recent bill, LD 1853, that Governor LePage signed into law on April 24, which Fiddlehead Focuspreviously reported on and posted on April 27.
Irving emphasized the track record of the company in logging and said, “Whatever we do, it has to be right.”
He said the company is currently looking to see if the mining proposal at Bald Mountain is “really a serious commercial opportunity.” Both Irving and Anthony Hourihan, director of land development for the company, said that decision would be made after the state completes the next step in the regulatory process, which is to rewrite the environmental regulations to incorporate the legislative changes approved in LD 1853.
Irving explained the upcoming, approximately two-year process of rulemaking as a process where the state takes the legislation and “applies it on the ground.”
“If this doesn’t work out, we’ll just stick to planting trees,” Irving said.
In accordance with the assurance MDEP Policy Director Heather Parent offered previously, the company representatives said the groundwater and surface water leaving the site of the proposed project will meet state standards and that the recently approved legislation does not propose changes to those standards.
Hourihan said approximately $24 million has been spent in the Bald Mountain area since the 1970’s on exploratory testing and baseline monitoring. The proposal has the potential to create up to 300 direct jobs and 400 indirect jobs statewide, with 120 million generated in state and local taxes and 600 million dollars in payroll over the life of the project.
Hourihan said if the company goes ahead with the project, it will last approximately 30 years, with 20 years of active mining and 5 years on either end for the construction and closure processes. He said the project could have a positive impact on the wood-fired electric generating plant in Ashland.
When audience member Darrell Adams questioned the effect that tailings left behind would have on the area’s environmental health and how the company planned to address those industrial by-products, Hourihan deferred to the upcoming environmental regulatory re-write, saying the engineering plan would address this question and that the company would move forward with that when the regulations were finalized.
When UMFK Professor Soraya Cardenas asked whether Irving could guarantee local employment, Irving said all employees would have to live nearby, but was unclear in addressing whether jobs would go to locals who currently live in the area.
“All the skills we can get here and use here, we want to use,” he said, encouraging local educational institutions to help train a workforce. He suggested specialized mining expertise would have to be imported, however.
Maine State Representative Troy Jackson is one of the lead sponsors along with Senator John Martin for LD 1853. He said he’d testified in support of the bill in spite of issues he’s had with the Irving company in the past, specifically the way they pay their employees.
“I’ve had labor issues I’ve dealt with, with these people. But I can’t let my personal feelings get in the way of something that might be good for the people of Aroostook County.”
He said the company representatives failed to mention the $32 million water treatment facility that would need to be built to treat discharges from the mining activities, which would be another financial investment in the area.
“They are as good as any other environmentally,” he said. He also said the company doesn’t use bonded workers on their projects, whereas other logging companies do, which has been a contentious issue for the logging contractors and stakeholders in northern Maine.
Martin said the benefits that the Bald Mountain proposal will potentially have on many different aspects of Irving’s interests, from rail transportation to logging and forestry, and the anticipated influence the project could leverage for the company will be unlikely to have an impact on state policy.
“I don’t care how much they put into Aroostook County, it’s a very small piece of the economic engine that drives the state.” He said the interests of electrical companies have a greater impact on the legislature than Irving does.
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