Leading environmental groups and state environmental regulators are working together on a bill they say would create strict regulations for mining Maine's deposits of gold and other minerals.
Metallic mineral mining is technically legal in Maine, but the state Department of Environmental protection and lawmakers say the existing mish-mash of rules poses legal and environmental risks.
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A legislative committee last month voted to recommend Democratic state Sen. Brownie Carson's bill, which is on the Senate's calendar for Tuesday and could receive an initial vote this week.
Carson's bill amends a 2012 law that called for modernized mining rules and was shepherded by the Canadian company J.D. Irving, which had wanted to mine a gold, silver, zinc and copper deposit at Bald Mountain in northern Maine. But legislators didn't act on mining rules offered by regulators several times, with environmental groups saying the rules were too weak.
Carson said his bill fixes issues with the 2012 mining law and called it "the most protective piece of mining legislation I believe that can be found anywhere." He said the legislation would prohibit open-pit mining, require companies to prove they could cover a disaster's cost and ban mining on or under public lands, lakes, rivers, coastal waters and wetlands.
Carson is a former head of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, whose scientist helped draft the bill.
Republican Sen. Thomas Saviello, the Senate chair of the Legislature's environment and natural resources committee, said the bill creates "significant hurdles" before applicants can get a mining permit. He predicts strong support for the bill in the Legislature.
"A fly-by-night outfit that wants to take advantage of resources will never come here," said Saviello, who's working with Republican Gov. Paul LePage's office on a bill to update the state's mining excise tax.
Democratic Rep. Denise Harlow opposes mineral mining in Maine. She said the bill was drafted without guidance from mining industry experts and that the state Department of Environmental Protection lacks the expertise to protect the environment from the damage mineral mining can cause.
The bill would allow underground mining, but legislators have had little time to discuss the realities of such mining as they worked on Carson's fast-tracked bill alongside other mining bills, Harlow said.
"They say we don't have a choice, we have to do something," she said. "There were other choices, we chose to do this."