Like so many stories these days, this is a tale of corporate power.
At the request of Maine’s largest landowner, J.D. Irving — of the Irving-family forestry, oil, shipbuilding, railroad, and news-media corporate empire of New Brunswick — the Republican-controlled Maine Legislature in 2012 rushed through a law requiring the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to write new, less-stringent mining rules for the whole state.
Among other specific commands, the Legislature told the DEP to relax the regulations governing a mine’s water pollution (see sidebar, “A Little Language, A Big Difference”). Irving is interested in open-pit mining at Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain, part of its 1.2-million-acre Maine holdings.
The idea of mining Bald Mountain is not new. It has been controversial for decades. In the middle of the beautiful North Woods, 12 miles southwest of the town of Portage, this small mountain (1465 feet in elevation) lies among the most-untouched lakes and streams in the state, the habitat of the increasingly rare native brook trout and the humans who fish for them.
Bald Mountain is fundamentally controversial because much of the history of open-pit mines is of damaging the environment around them. Not surprisingly, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), Trout Unlimited, Maine Audubon, and other environmental groups have been opposed to relaxing the rules to benefit mining development at the expense of water quality.
The Bald Mountain saga began in 1977 when John S. Cummings, a Maine geologist, discovered an ore deposit at the mountain’s base. It contains copper and zinc and lesser amounts of gold and silver.
Cummings, now 83 and retired to Texas, is proud of his discovery — “the only major metal deposit ever located in New England,” he says. “There’s nothing even close.” In an interview, he expresses disappointment that he hasn’t gotten what he feels is proper credit for it.
Raising the alarm
Cummings also feels he’s been ignored in another way. In his retirement he is trying to raise the alarm about a particular pollutant contained within the mountain: arsenic — the element fabled in history and literature as probably the world’s most notorious poison.
Bald Mountain’s volcanic bedrock has very high arsenic content — “pervasive throughout the deposit,” Cummings says. In his tests at the site, he found arsenic levels in the rock up to 29,000 parts per million, mind-bogglingly high. Solids, of course, are not the same as liquids, but that’s 2.9 million times the level the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking water (10 parts per billion).
Developing an open-pit mine, Cummings fears, could produce big environmental problems. In one of his many writings about the mountain, he describes it as an enormous, naturally occurring “toxic dump.”
In mining the mountain, the arsenic would be pervasive in the “tailings,” the massive residue left after the small amount of valuable ore is separated from the rock that contains it in the complicated, on-site milling and chemical process employed once the rock is dug out.
Tailings are often stored as a mixture of rock particles and water in a man-made pond supposedly sealed off from the groundwater. But at many mines in this country and around the world tailings have been a source of water