The Pickett Mountain mine proposal has merit

By V. Paul Reynolds

Pickett Mountain is a 1,750 foot mountain north of Patten. It is a third the size of Mt. Katahdin. According to an Ontario-based mining company that purchased the mountain, it contains more than a billion dollars worth of minerals, including zinc, copper, silver and gold. The Ontario mining firm, Wolfden Resources Corporation, wants to mine zinc for 10-15 years, which it claims would generate $1.4 billion in cash flow. An offshoot of this generated economy would be, according to Wolfden,  270-300 high paying jobs for the Patten area with average earnings of $80,000 to $90,000 a year!

The mining firm is petitioning Maine’s Land Use Protection Commission (LUPC) for a rezoning of the mountain. On Feb 24, LUPC will vote on the rezoning. If Wolfden clears that hurdle, it will then face the second regulatory gauntlet, a permit to mine from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Predictably, various environmental organizations have launched a reflexive preemptive strike against the mine proposal before Wolfden has had a chance to make its pitch. “No way,” says NRCM and the Penobscot Nation, arguing that a zinc mine operation would endanger Maine’s wild fishery and clean water. Public opposition was strong at a number of public hearings held by LUPC.

A spokesman for the Ontario firm has told Patten residents that it probably would not proceed without the support of the town. It is easy to stand in opposition. Nationally, mining operations don’t have a good environmental record. And Maine’s north woods with its clean air, clean water and precious wild fishery is a treasure to be safeguarded. 

But there are some compelling reasons to at least keep an open mind. We cannot have our cake and eat it, too. Our clean energy era, with electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines will put unprecedented demands for zinc and copper, as well as lithium. 

The irony compounds. Plumbago Mountain, near Newry, Maine reportedly holds one of the richest lithium deposits in the world, with an estimated value of $1.5 billion. In other words, Maine, a poor state with an aging demographic, a relatively anemic economy and an inability to keep its young people here, is literally and figuratively sitting on a gold mine of high-demand minerals. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, “mining this type of lithium deposit is comparable to extraction of limestone or granite,” something that was a safe and essential part of Maine’s economy for more than a century.

So the elemental question remains: Can Maine extract these valuable job-producing minerals and still maintain the integrity of its natural resources?

Did you know that Maine has the strictest mining regulations of any state in the country? Some key provisions of the law, which was passed in 2017, and its accompanying strong rules are:

  • A ban on open-pit mining.
  • A ban on mining in, on, or under public lands, lakes, outstanding rivers, coastal wetlands, and high-value freshwater wetlands.
  • A ban on mines that would require treatment of toxic wastewater in perpetuity.
  • A ban on tailings impoundments, the most dangerous parts of mines.

                 *A requirement that mining companies pay enough money up-front to cover a worst-case mining disaster so Maine citizens don’t get stuck with cleanup costs for mining company messes.

Indications are that this law as written would prevent the mining of Maine’s rich lithium deposit at Plumbago Mountain. There is a suit pending. Lithium is a key component of electric batteries that power electric vehicles. There is no free lunch. It takes energy to charge batteries for electric vehicles, and it takes lithium mining to construct these batteries for electric vehicles.

The regulatory odds against Wolfden’s proposed zinc mine have to be formidable, if not insurmountable. But if they can operate a mine within the confines of Maine’s existing mining law, they should not be denied simply on the bad environmental record of mining operations in other states. Maine must reevaluate its embedded notion that economic vitality and a pristine coldwater sport fishery are mutually exclusive.

Becky Phillips, a select board member in Patten, nailed it. “We are a very low- to moderate-income community and most of the surrounding communities are that way. We need industry up here. We have an aging population and if we don’t bring population, we are going to die on the vine.”

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books. Online purchase information is available at www.sportingjournal.com.

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