Pit mine risks what we value

9 years ago

To the editor:

A terrible mistake is about to be made in Augusta as you read this. It will benefit only a few, despite promises to the contrary, mostly will benefit one rich family, the Irvings of Canada, while putting at great risk the health and economic future of the rest of us in Aroostook County. I refer to a vote on a weakened set of rules to allow an industry with the dirtiest record in the world to get a foothold here in our backyard.

We understood from the beginning this was to let Irving dig a pit mine on Bald Mountain, which sits above the headwaters of our two rivers — the Aroostook on one side and the Fish River, which feeds our beautiful chain of lakes from the opposite slope. The bill under consideration also applies to a lot of other sites, including close to public lands or, amazingly, under a lake! It seems they have decided we may as well throw all caution to the wind while they are at it. And when these sites leak poison, we taxpayers will pay the price.
I will share now so someone doesn’t try to dismiss me as “someone from away” trying to dictate to Aroostook that I’ve owned property here for 40 years. I built a house with my own hands, worked many jobs including tough ones we all know and love, like potato harvest or running chainsaws. I also worked much of my adult life here in local schools or institutions teaching for GED, or adult math, working with disabled kids, or helping adults apply for college. I helped organize several food coops. I have empathy for the hardships here, the loss of Loring, where I once held a job. I have paid my dues.
Unlike some of you, I was fortunate to have a degree from a great science school, Rensselaer Polytech Class of ‘70, before I came here. The degree helped me get some jobs — I was director at the Nylander Museum in Caribou for years, but part-time. Mostly I had to learn the Aroostook skill of adapting and not being too proud to do any job to get by.
Like many others in the ‘70s I came up to have a little farm, when land was cheap. It was a nice dream but reality was different. Most of that wave left because it simply is not easy to survive here, as most of you know. But for some of us, a love for this place got in our hearts and we were always drawn back even if we felt we’d had enough of winter or low wages and tried elsewhere.
I’ve traveled all the way down the East Coast. I can tell you The County is unique, it gets in your blood. If you feel that, then I’m one of you. We have a sense of “safety” or “peace” here, for lack of a better word, in a crazy world where there are more shopping malls than moose and quiet is rare. I don’t know anyone who loves this place who stays here for the almighty dollar.
I get the feeling many of our County lawmakers have forgotten all this, maybe because they have a bad case of “development envy” from spending too much time, at our expense, down there rubbing shoulders with rich lobbyists. What a nice little part-year job that is; getting paid what for most of us would be a full year of pay, sitting in a suit, texting in halls of the legislature, with paid health insurance and per diem for their travel. Don’t let anyone kid you, we should all be so lucky as to get elected and get paid to decide the fate of others, like deciding it might cost Maine too much to insure all the rest of us. I have little pity for them.
At the same time, not to paint all of them with one brush, I have respect for those who stood up against this bad law in 2013 and I hope they show courage to face it down again. It is sad most of our County delegation seems intent on selling us down the river on promises from Irving. I smell a stink of desperation about the jobs argument. Desperate folks get taken advantage of.
The latest charade going on with Mr. Martin pushing for his Irving lobbied bill is an example of democracy gone wrong, in my opinion. It seems clear to me one rich guy’s desire outweighs hundreds of folks who at own expense traveled to Augusta to testify against weakening environmental law to allow a dirty pit mine above our waters. In a true democracy all that negative testimony would have killed it, but in today’s Augusta, such hearings seem merely venting sessions for appearance sake. They let folks with concerns for health or environment vent so they can get on with their real business, showing favoritism to large companies with lots of money and influence. Often, they sweeten deals by offering financial favors like tax breaks we don’t get, or risk turning another Aroostook waterway into their sewer. Anyone here remember the Vahlsing sugar beet fiasco or the death of Prestile Stream? How can they pay for these millions of incentives to big industry or the after effects of cleanup? One way is to take away revenue sharing that helps our small towns and saves us all some property taxes.
One of the most disturbing things is their failure to learn from the past. This is 2015 yet they ignore real science to believe assurances any company tells them. Perhaps some never did well in science at school. I got a great science education — but more importantly I kept my curiosity as an adult and never stopped informing myself. I paid attention when the original geologist who found the Bald Mtn. deposit (and is not anti-mining) wrote to warn legislators a pit mine should never happen there, too dangerous. Or when a real scientist came here and spoke about dangers, in PI. All I have seen from mine supporters is repetition of the Irving company line, no real details of process to be used, where process water will come from, exactly how waste will be stored or protected from the bizarre extremes of rain we see, or the infrastructure disruption that is needed to move the ore out, no doubt to China. There is no discussion except job promises, no guarantee, or over what a “mining town” looks like, what it does to the social fabric of a rural town, like fracking has in the Dakotas. This is nothing like our old days of logging industry, I can assure you.
Yet, as one writer said, they keep saying “trust us.” Trust the DEP who didn’t even bother to correct their typos on first rejected rules? Trust the legal system to save us should a mine fail and we have to sue the company? It could take years of denial and legal challenges to first prove health risk and then clean up after a leak. I trust you know the answers because this has all played out before elsewhere — the same glowing promises, the first happy blush of ribbon cutting, the startup, the inevitable disappointment over local jobs, then the leaks or other issues, and the blame game. And major players? The mine company? The legislators who voted for it? They will walk away free. Politicians leave office, like Troy Jackson, an original sponsor. Mr. Martin is in his 70’s, may even make money renting camps to mine managers. Mining companies are known for changing owners or going bankrupt, leaving taxpayers with the bill.
Mine boosters are big on throwing terms around, so let’s examine some. First they use a term “legacy mine” to describe, and dismiss, their long record of damages, saying they have turned over a new leaf and won’t repeat the past. To me, this is like some drunk with a long DUI record standing before a judge about to rule against him saying “But, your Honor, that is just my legacy, just trust me.”
There is the notion that folks “from away”, pesky environmentalists, are trying to hold down Aroostook. There sometimes seems an anti-environment bias here in some County leaders. This maybe was understandable in the ignorant 1950s — I grew up around that. But today there is no simply excuse for it. Those very folks “from away” are ones that fought long ago to clean up our waters and air, or shut down some toxic industries.
Rachael Carson, long revered in Maine, was similarly accused of being a pest, even threatened, when she wrote “Silent Spring” which helped save our bald eagles. Gov. Baxter was persecuted for saving land around Mt. Katahdin. I can’t think of a single dirty industry that has cleaned up its act without a fight. Thank God for these people.
Next time you drink a clean glass of water, thank an environmentalist. And if you worry when your kids swim at Portage Lake someday, blame the mine supporters like Mr. Martin, Mr, Irving, and others. Pin the blame where it belongs, though it won’t help you regain your lake later. By the way, the Canadian company is “from away,” isn’t it?
As I said, it is uncertain to me as I write this whether that vote, which is a corrupted version of LD750, has already been held. If not, for all that is holy in Aroostook, get to a phone and state your opposition to that bill which greases the rails for Irving and others to pit mine in Maine. If it has passed, still shout your opposition to a mine at Bald Mountain, in our own selfish interest. Only a few, especially one company already worth billions, will gain, while the rest of us sacrifice what is priceless, our quality of life, our safe water. You do not have be a great writer — just talk from your heart and show a little courage. Bring the mine up anywhere, in your local coffee shop, at a grocery store, to faces of local leaders- push them hard for details. Just say “No.”
I worked the phone to people at potato or tourism boards asking them to take a stand in their own interest, pointing out the risk to our local economy of potatoes or tourism, and was met with folks afraid to offend or risk their job, hiding in the shadows, not much courage. Yet, when I start a dialogue in some store I often find ordinary folks, your neighbors, maybe not informed but concerned and against mining once they do understand where this is located, what’s at stake. I must confess I too may have sat it out if it were just a dry hole out in the woods, not such a risk to our waters. Aside from our health risk, “branding” matters today. Given how fast word travels now in social media. I guarantee this will “go viral” if Bald Mountain is mined — there is already a global petition with over 1,000 signatures from a dozen nations. I wonder if associating a word arsenic with potatoes or local crops will destroy our agriculture. Or how many families “from away” will not come for outdoor tourism in Aroostook.
I sincerely hope this will make you think, because there may still be time to at least contest the Bald Mountain mine, though there were even efforts to squelch public input. Hopefully we still have a voice. And as for the crew that put us under this threat I think they should feel ashamed. At the very least, since you have access to computers, please take time to inform yourselves. Google a few words, “copper pit mine environmental issues” and see what comes up. If you missed the talk from Nick Bennett of the Natural Resource Council of Maine, an “environmental group”, bring up their website, ask for a download of their mine testimony, which was ignored by pro mine committee folks.
I truly hope someone from the pro-mine side responds to argue with me. I’d relish the chance to pick you apart in a second round of letters. I’d love an open debate. As for the criticism that if I don’t want a mine what may I suggest to keep or bring young folks here? First, take the same millions you shovel out the door to big companies and direct it to paying off these kids’ student loans as an incentive to stay, second, similarly divert that money to a big local start-up fund in Aroostook and Washington counties, to attract young entrepreneurs. Why not, you waste it on companies that fold anyway. Subsidize rents up here or help home buyers, if a family agrees to stay five years. Don’t claim you can’t afford it — I see you wasting millions. Why is it called free enterprise when they want less regulation but then want our cash? Stop thinking like 1950 if you want today’s green-minded youth, they will flee from an area that doesn’t care about environment.
Finally, restore revenue sharing as was passed by law so more property owners will stay. I saw 70,000 young people come all the way up here for a musical event years ago, which we are way overdue for, and they were in awe over what they saw. My guess is some came back later to visit or stay. You local developers can’t figure out how to market this unspoiled gem we have, and also protect it? Maybe it is time you seek other employment. Arsenic and water just don’t mix. Don’t ruin our economic future.

Jerry Leary