LePage signs new mining bill, what's the next step?
MAINE – On Tuesday, April 25, Governor LePage signed into law LD 1853, “An Act To Improve Environmental Oversight and Streamline Permitting for Metallic Mineral Mining in Maine.”
People like Wallagrass resident Greg Ouellette, a graduate of the University of Maine at Fort Kent forestry program, are questioning whether the bill will facilitate an industrial process that will have negative environmental consequences for people in the St. John Valley and across the state with little economic benefit.
Although the law has passed with the legislature and the Governor’s approval, there is an approximately two year process during which policy makers will craft new regulations based on the recently passed law. The regulations are the means through which the government administers the law and the public interacts with government.
Heather Parent, Policy Director for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said that the newly approved bill does not address the stringency of existing environmental regulations that apply to metallic mineral mining in Maine at all.
“The rules regulating the cleanliness of Maine’s air, water, and land will remain as strict as they are today,” she said.
Parent added, “If they need to be stricter, they will be stricter.”
Instead, the law primarily simplifies the permitting application process.
“Mining activities touch all aspects of environmental permitting in the DEP,” said Parent. “Under the former regime, if an applicant wanted a permit for metal mining, they may have had to apply for a Site Location of Development permit, a Natural Resources Protection Act permit, a Hazardous Waste permit, a discharge permit, and others.”
The new law, said Parent, allows an applicant to apply for almost all of the approvals needed from the DEP for a mining project under one application.
Some DEP permitting programs, such as the Maine Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, are programs that the federal government has authorized the state to administer, however. In those cases, the federal government requires a separate application under the conditions for state administration, and therefore any metals mining project needing permitting under the MEPDES program or a similarly administered program would still have to apply for that permit separately.
Permitting for large projects with significant environmental impacts generally involves coordination with a number of different state and federal agencies and multiple opportunities for public feedback during the process. Parent said the new law attempts to make it easier for the public to participate and for the applicant to meet the requirements by coordinating and consolidating the meetings and public hearings.
The new law also allows for a wider variety of implementation methods to meet the environmental standards. Previously, the DEP issued very prescriptive requirements, which limited engineers and contractors to specific means of achieving those standards. Parent said, as always, the applicant carries the burden of demonstrating that the project will not cause unreasonable harm to the environment, but the new law allows the DEP to consider proposals utilizing new technologies and procedures for achieving the desired environmental standards.
“We will be very busy in the next year-and-a-half fleshing out some details,” she said. “The rules shouldn’t be too prescriptive to prevent applicants from proposing new technologies.”
The new law also gives the DEP oversight for metals mining in unorganized territories. Historically, this would have fallen under the Land Use Regulation Commission’s purview. Parent indicated that the change in the new legislation was driven as much by the recent repurposing of LURC’s mission as it was by legislators’ desire to achieve a more efficient and effective mining statute.
Parent was cautious when explaining why neither the DEP nor LURC had issued a permit for metals mining under the 1991 metal mining rules, the former regulations. She said reasons for this lack of permit issuance was discussed during extensive Environmental and Natural Resources legislative workshop sessions out of which the new law came.
“At the hearings, there were two schools of thought about that,” she said. Some felt it was a result of too prescriptive requirements for applicants. Others felt that it was a reflection of a poor market for the mineral deposits present in Maine, or a combination of a fluctuating market and a long and expensive permitting process.