Augusta – J.D. Irving, Ltd is facing more public opposition to its attempts to change environmental regulations, this time in neighbouring Maine.
J.D. Irving is already under fire in New Brunswick for the heavy-handed lobbying that resulted in a forestry strategy for the province’s public forest that guarantees the company an additional wood supply for the next 35 years. The additional wood supply will come from de-classifying conversation forest and increasing clearcutting and herbicide spraying.
Aroostook Resources, a J.D. Irving company, plans to mine zinc and copper at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, Maine. The company has been lobbying to loosen the state’s Department of Environmental Protection’s regulations for mining projects since at least 2012. Critics charge the proposed changes would allow unlimited groundwater contamination from mines, decrease the size of buffer zones between mines and public lands, and reduce the responsibility of mining companies to clean up toxic wastewater.
The planned project would take the form of a 100 acre pit mine, which J.D. Irving claims “has the potential to create tens of millions of dollars in economic activity and hundreds of jobs over a multi-decade time frame.”
J.D. Irving is the pulp and paper wing of the Irving family’s group of companies, all of which are privately held, and therefore not submitted to the same level of public accountability and financial transparency as publicly-traded companies. James K. Irving inherited the company from his father in 1992, with the proviso that he would renounce his Canadian residency in order to avoid paying taxes in Canada. He resides in Bermuda.
As in New Brunswick, the proposed environmental deregulation has resulted in stiff public opposition. In late February, about 100 people voiced concerns with the relaxing of the state of Maine’s environmental protection legislation for the J.D. Irving’s mine at a public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources in Augusta. Environmentalists, farmers, hunters, fishing enthusiasts and landowners were among those present at the hearing.
The proposed rule changes were submitted in a Bill by Democratic representative John L. Martin and Democratic Senator Troy Jackson at Irving’s request, and have both Democrat and Republican support. The changes were rejected by the Legislative Committee in 2014 and sent back to the DEP for redrafting amidst concerns over public health and environmental pollution. Despite the previous rejection, the bill submitted this year is identical to the previous version.
Opponents of the mine say that the type of mining Irving plans to carry out presents serious ecological risks, specifically to aquatic wildlife.
Bald Mountain is in close proximity to the Fish River system of lakes, which is habitat for brook trout and a wide variety of other aquatic species.
A recent report published by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, “Bald Mountain Mining Risks, Hidden from the Public,” describes how hard rock mining exposes sulfide-containing rock to air and water, creating large quantities of sulfuric acid. “The acid also leaches out heavy metals naturally present in the rock, many of which are extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms,” the report states.
The mine’s opponents have raised concern that the proposed new rules extend the period of time a company is allowed to deliberate on cleaning up mining waste. It is common practice to leave toxic byproducts from mining in earthen-dammed tailings ponds until the company is ready to begin cleanup of the fluids.
Opponents fear the dams might leak or collapse, contaminating groundwater, rivers and streams of northern Maine with massive amounts of wastewater. They cite the example of the Mt. Polley mine disaster in British Columbia in 2014 where a tailings dam collapsed, dumping 2 billion gallons of wastewater into nearby bodies of water.
Residents are concerned how such a spill from the mine could harm the local economy and jobs. The fishing industry, “adds $36 million dollars to the Aroostook economy every year… If it was ruined, all those jobs would disappear; those jobs that can last lifetimes,” says Shelly Mountain, a resident of Mapleton. Additionally, jobs in wildlife tourism far outnumber the estimated 700 jobs Irving claims they will create, most of which will be temporary.
A small minority of supporters of the proposed changes to the mining rules were present at the hearing. They included Matthew Muzzy, a geotechnical engineer representing Sevee and Maher Engineers Inc. His firm profits from the design and construction oversight of containment structures for mining waste. He said the old rules did not allow space for any mining applications, and that the proposed changes will allow mining projects to take place. “I believe the rules are strict. What they do is give an applicant a chance to be an applicant,” said Muzzy.
Hillary Lister of Maine Matters Research and Consulting disagreed. She said the permits given out under the proposed rules are much more lenient about disposal of hazardous materials, including not only sulfuric acid, but also radioactive byproducts like uranium and radon, according to Lister. “They [the hazardous materials] would be approved for disposal on site as part of the mining permit issuance.”
Lister has been following Irving’s practices in the state for decades, and voiced concerns about both the company’s track record and the State’s lenient enforcement. “They’ve had the biggest clear-cut violations in state history, yet the maximum fine is $70,000. That’s nothing for them to pay off.”
Connor Albers does radio reporting for WMPG, Greater Portland’s community radio station.