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Will legislators take mining ‘jobs’ bait this time around?

Link to Original Article

Op-Ed in the BDN by Dennis Chinoy | May 6, 2015

A screenshot from the website of Aroostook Resources, a firm that formed to mine in Aroostook County.
Contributed photo
A screenshot from the website of Aroostook Resources, a firm that formed to mine in Aroostook County.

In December 2012, three lawyers from the legal firm Pierce Atwood published a somewhat self-congratulatory article in a mining journal. “About Face: How a mine moved toward operating in Maine” described how the authors helped craft a bill mandating relaxed mining regulations on behalf of the J.D. Irving Company.

The essential ingredient: “Metallic mineral mining,” they wrote, “was framed as a chance to grow opportunity in Aroostook County, a place where opportunity is lacking”

The lead author, Tom Doyle, also happened to be one of three J.D. Irving lobbyists the company paid $226,000 in aggregate to do this “framing” for Maine lawmakers. A second lobbyist was Anthony Hourihan, who predicted “300 to 400 jobs on site with the potential to create 300-400 indirect jobs so the potential to create 700 jobs…”

Representing Aroostook Resources, Irving’s designated mining subsidiary, Hourihan may not be the most credible jobs messenger. Nevertheless, “700 jobs” has been repeated like a mantra by mining promoters, by Aroostook County legislators and its chamber of commerce, and by other legislators reluctant to deny their underemployed fellow Mainers a shot at development.

If only it were true.

History is a guide. The last promises of mining jobs in Maine were from the Black Hawk mine in Blue Hill in the 1960s. Their estimate: 400 jobs for 10-20 years. The reality: Peak employment never exceeded 100, and the mine closed in less than five years.

Aroostook Resources’ job predictions may have no more substance than does its actual existence: That is, on paper only. The company was incorporated eight months after the mining law’s passage, apparently for the express purpose of applying to excavate Bald Mountain. Aroostook Resources has never mined an ounce of anything. Until recently its only sign of life was an upbeat web page featuring photos of green fields, clear water, and an employed-looking man in a hardhat.

Aroostook Resources’ “good paying jobs” will likely be far more limited in number and duration than advertised. Many slots would be filled by non-Mainers having requisite skills for the project: In states without existing mining operations, the skilled jobs are most often imported.

Doyle’s article concludes: “without the promise of jobs and prosperity, lawmakers would likely have shied away from this proposal.” Indeed, this promise was the only counterbalance to what legislators and regulatory agencies have heard by lopsided margins from hundreds of Mainers who testified in Augusta.

Their overwhelming message: It is a fool’s errand to consider mining at Bald Mountain and possibly anywhere in Maine, given the high sulfide content of its metallic deposits in a very wet state. The risk of acid mine drainage polluting Maine’s environmentally and economically precious watershed is unacceptably high and escalates with time. Moreover, the huge cost of remediating in perpetuity the damage caused by mine failures virtually guarantees that this burden will be borne by generations of future taxpayers, no matter what “financial assurances” the regulations feature.

In 2014, the Maine Legislature listened to those voices and rejected the mining regulations that the mining law had spawned. However, neither J.D. Irving nor its lobbyists have disappeared. So, like a bad penny, the proposed regulations re-surfaced this year, word for word.

Though the Environment and Natural Resources Committee has neither the in-house expertise nor the budget to do so, its members went to great lengths to re-write the regulations by themselves. This approach permits sending the modified rules to the full Legislature for a vote without any further delay. Having had the rules rejected last year, the committee’s Republican members plus Rep. John Martin — who sponsored the mining bill at J.D. Irving’s behest and now sits on the ENR committee — want to “get it done” this time around.

So once again, the claim will be that “responsible mining” can protect Maine’s environment while providing hundreds of good paying jobs for those who desperately need them.

We won’t know until afterward how much J.D. Irving will spend this time around to get the regulations it wants. But we’re about to learn this: Can another well financed lobbying campaign’s inflated promises of jobs for Northern Maine again override legislators’ basic instinct to protect Maine’s waters?

Dennis Chinoy of Bangor is a volunteer for Power in Community Alliances.

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