A small tweak to Maine law could bring billions to Western Maine
This week, five bills dealing with mining and quarrying in Maine were printed and referred to the legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), which oversees certain aspects of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and laws governing mining, logging, and other resource-based industries.
Such an extensive flurry of bills on this particular issue is rare in a single session. Legislators’ and voters’ interest has been piqued since the discovery of an extraordinarily dense deposit of lithium, a mineral used in electric batteries and other green technologies, valued at $1.5 billion was found at Plumbago Mountain in the western Maine town of Newry. Estimates based on mines with similar lithium content peg the potential economic benefits to the region at nearly $4 billion over five years.
Mary and Gary Freeman, the owners of the site, do not intend to process the lithium on site. They only plan to quarry, excavate, and transport it to a site where the lithium can be separated from the spodumene in which it lives. When they submitted their application for a quarry to DEP, regulators denied it, claiming that the state considers their site a metallic mineral mine.
At issue is a 2017 change to the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act (MMMA), which prompts DEP regulators to define the spodumene, a type of granitic pegmatite, which encases the lithium at Plumbago North as a “metallic mineral” because it will be “excavated for its metallic mineral content.” This circular definition, put in place by radical environmentalists, has kneecapped the family’s ability to profit from the immense value placed on lithium in today’s push for clean energy technology like electric vehicles.
The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that “neither lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites nor their parental granites are likely to cause serious environmental concerns.” In reality, processing spodumene much more closely resembles quarrying than it does mining, especially metallic mineral mining, which may use a salt brine to separate the mineral from its home rock. These types of large-scale salt brines may lead to toxic chemicals leaching into nearby water sources, and should be viewed with caution.
Maine lawmakers’ proposals on this topic in the 131st Legislature span a broad range, from more specific legal definitions, to heightened rules around mining permits, to a moratorium on lithium mining, and even a moratorium on any new quarries.
LD 1433, sponsored by Rep. Mike Soboleski who represents Newry and other western Maine towns in the State House, would offer a small but meaningful change to the definition of “metallic mineral,” denoting that it would not include “pegmatite metals” like lithium encased in spodumene. This bill would establish a clearer path for DEP to delineate the Plumbago North lithium site as a quarry, and thus allow for the lithium there to be profitably extracted and the value therein to be shared and enjoyed by the region.
ENR committee members, and legislators broadly, should act to move this bill forward to Gov. Mills’ desk as soon as possible so that western Maine can benefit from the sky-high global price of lithium and other minerals necessary for developing the next wave of technologies.