Thursday, January 16, 2014

More on Mining in Maine

Published in The Star-Herald, 1-22-14
            Bravo to the organizers of the public meeting on Mining in Maine on January 9 in Ashland for bringing in geologists who directly addressed environmental risks and attempts to mitigate them.  And thanks also for encouraging unlimited questions and comments from the audience.  The presentations focused on the difference between “legacy mines” and modern mines; the former operating in the days when there was not sufficient scientific understanding about pollution, nor adequate regulations, and the latter operating with advanced knowledge and technology.
            Important questions posed by audience members did not get reassuring answers.  What about the possibility of leaks in liners supposed to contain the toxic elements?  Yes, there is potential for leaks.  In addition to liner flaws, flooding, earthquakes, or other natural disasters can cause the tailings ponds containing the toxins to fail.  Is there potential for harm in using bactericides to clean up the chemicals used in processing the metals?  Yes, just as there is in the use of pesticides.  Hydro-geologist Carol White explained, “Inherent in any of these studies is uncertainty . . . nobody can guarantee water quality in the future, the idea is to draw up the rules in a way that minimizes negative impacts.”  
            Asked to provide a specific example of a modern mine using the advanced technology, Geologist Robert Marvinney referred to the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin.  Another audience member googled “Flambeau Mine” on the spot and asked about the toxic materials from that mine that are polluting surrounding waters after closure in 1997.  Marvinney said that there is conflicting scientific opinion about the success of that mine in reducing risks and it depends on who you believe.   
            So should we believe the scientists who work for the mining industry ( or the scientists used by a site like that provides an overview of the technologies used and of the pollution problems that remain (  Nick Bennnet, a scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine explained to me some of the serious environmental risks the Board of Environmental Protection has passed in its new regulations that you can read below.*
            There are important advances being made in the scientific understanding of risks, and some technologies are being developed that might help mitigate the risks.  But there is not enough evidence to warrant the relaxation of environmental safeguards.  Instead, there is sound evidence that these rules increase the risks. 

            It’s true, there is plenty of uncertainty in all areas of our lives, but when we can choose to reduce the uncertainty by writing more rather than less rigorous protections, it is socially irresponsible to increase the negative impacts and the uncertainty as these regulations do.   We need to err on the side of caution and remain vigilant about the motives of those who seek economic profit without serious regard for the health and safety of the environment, humans, and wildlife.  I look forward to further educational meetings promised by organizers and hope they will bring in alternative scientific viewpoints about current success in managing the risks.  

*Nick Bennet, scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine lists some of the most serious problems of the new mining regulations passed by the Department of Environmental Protection:
1.      They allow perpetual treatment for wet mine waste units as long as the applicant defines the time frame (i.e., 1000 years is okay) and DEP determines that wet mine waste units are the most practicable way of dealing with mining waste.  The thing is, DEP put in sections about wet mine waste units because they think they are the most practicable technology for mines in Maine, so it’s clear that any mining applicant will get the okay to use them.  This is a just a poorly disguised way of allowing perpetual treatment.
2.      Many Land for Maine’s Future and other public lands are not excluded from mining or protected by any buffer for surface mines.  Thus, mines – both underground and surface – are allowed on many Land for Maine’s future lands depending on who owns the mineral rights.  TNC and AMC have said they will work on a map of what lands this actually means.
3.      They don’t require full payment of financial assurance prior start of mining.
4.      They don’t have a clear definition of mining area, which means mining companies can likely pollute large areas of groundwater. 
He adds:

            “Every mine needs maintenance forever, especially mines that have tailings dams, which break if you don’t keep them up and that’s an environmental disaster.  Mines without tailings dams need maintenance of caps, also potentially the scooping out of wetlands that may get filled with sediment, etc.  But mines that require active wastewater treatment in perpetuity are a special problem that we have been fighting against as hard as possible.  That’s because if you need active treatment after the mine is done operating, it means you have particularly reactive waste or you have done a poor job of putting the waste to bed in a sound way.  Active treatment also often fails when the power goes out, when the weather is very cold, or if there is no one around to pay the monthly electric bills, add chemicals and do maintenance.  And active treatment is really expensive!
            “While the trust fund will be ‘fully funded’ under the definition of ‘fully funded in the rules, that definition stinks.  There is an incredibly complicated calculation the needs to be done at the start of each year figuring out how much money it would cost to clean up the mine a year from that point (this is actually from the existing rules).  My definition of fully funded is: you do an estimate of how much it costs to completely remediate the mine under worst case conditions and put that money in a trust up front.  Very different.”