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Climate Monitor

A weekly roundup of Maine's most urgent environmental and energy-related news from The Maine Monitor.

February 10, 2023

Geologists in the field at Pennington Mountain, where scientists recently discovered the potential for a significant deposit of rare earth elements and other critical minerals. Several bills introduced this session could open the door to the extraction of critical minerals in the state, including a rich lithium deposit in western Maine.

Photo by Anji Shah, USGS Research Geophysicist

Six years later, lawmakers look to amend mining laws

By Kate Cough

All the way back in the fall of 2021, I called a geologist to ask what he thought about plans by the Canadian junior mining company, Wolfden, to dig for zinc and copper up near Patten, just east of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. We talked about the proposal for awhile, and just before we hung up, I asked the question I ask at the end of every interview, one that almost always elicits an unexpected answer and is often the very best way to find new stories: What didn't we talk about that you want me to know? In this case it definitely didn't disappoint: after pausing for a moment, the geologist said well, there's something interesting going on over in western Maine...

And thus began my (armchair) adventure into the world of lithium deposits, from the salt flats of South America to the hard-rock mines of western Australia, and, of course, into what is thought to be the world's richest hard-rock deposit, in the sleepy town of Newry, near the New Hampshire border. A year-and-a-half later the story continues, now with a new player: lawmakers, who have introduced (at last count) ten bills aimed at altering Maine's mining regulations.

The bills (I was only able to review the full text of one, as most are still in the Revisor's office) run the gamut. One, LR 1624, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O'Neil of Saco, proposes a moratorium on lithium mining, while others (LR 1304, An Act to Promote Sustainable Lithium Mining in Maine, sponsored by Rep. Mike Soboleski of Phillips) are more full-throated in their support of the activity. (It's worth noting that moratoriums are temporary holds on an activity designed to give regulators time to put in place rules, not permanent bans, as is often thought.)

Here's the full list:

  • LR 1624 Rep. Maggie O'Neil of Saco: An Act to Ensure a Strategic Approach to Maine's Energy System by Imposing a Moratorium on Lithium Mining
  • LR 420 Rep. Scott Landry of Farmington: An Act to Support Extraction of Common Rock-forming and Rare Earth Minerals
  • LR 1121 Rep. Lydia Crafts of Newcastle: An Act to Establish a Commission to Study Mining Materials
  • LR 1732 Rep. Nina Milliken of Blue Hill: An Act to Eliminate Mining Without a Permit
  • LR 1304 Rep. Mike Soboleski of Phillips: An Act to Promote Sustainable Lithium Mining in Maine
  • LR 2272 Sen. Richard Bennett of Oxford: An Act Regarding Metallic Mineral Mining
  • LR 2138 Sen. Craig Hickman of Kennebec: An Act to Protect the People from Open Pit Quarry Mining
  • LR 930 Sen. Lisa Keim of Oxford: An Act Concerning Lithium Deposits

The reason we're seeing all of these bills, of course, is that Maine's 2017 mining law prohibits mining for "metallic minerals" in open pits larger than three acres. The deposit in Newry is already partially exposed, and numerous experts have said that open pit mining (as opposed to an underground shaft) is the only logical way to remove the rocks, which, they also point out, do not pose the same environmental risks as other types of metal deposits. But all mining poses some risks, and not everyone is on board with the idea of digging giant holes in the earth, even if the end product is an essential part of the transition away from fossil fuels.

State regulators have acknowledged the risks involved in mining this deposit are different but say their hands are tied: because "metallic mineral" does not have a commonly-agreed upon meaning in the scientific community, and because legislators did not specifically exclude lithium from the 2017 rules, the Newry deposit should be considered a metallic mineral. (Meanwhile, the Freemans, the gem-hunters who own the land and identified the deposit, are challenging the DEP's decision in court.)

Of the lawmakers I spoke to, all expressed a desire to support federal efforts to boost domestic production of critical minerals while ensuring the spirit and integrity of Maine's 2017 mining law remains intact. (In case you were wondering whether the feds are serious, look no further than a $700 million government loan to a Nevada lithium mine announced earlier this week.)

"We are putting greater and greater demand on this resource," said Sen. Lisa Keim of Oxford, whose bill, An Act Concerning Lithium Deposits, would amend the definition of metallic mineral in the 2017 law, with the ultimate objective of allowing the Newry deposit to be mined.

"I think we turn a blind eye to how it’s extracted, what’s the environmental impact. We don’t seem to care if it’s in another country…we can’t be NIMBY [not in my backyard] about this," Keim continued, "when we’re very willing to take it from other places where there’s possibly greater harm."

Keim said she was meeting with local and regional officials to discuss the potential impacts of mining the lithium in Newry, with a particular focus on safeguarding the town of Rumford's water supply, which is adjacent to the deposit.

Rep. Lydia Crafts of Newcastle, whose bill would establish a commission to study the issue of critical minerals extraction, also felt that the state should be looking into domestic supply.

"I think at a state level we should also be considering what domestic supply of these minerals we have available to us - and my understanding of the supply that Maine has currently is significant," said Crafts. "Before making a decision, I think we need to consider what those deposits mean and how extraction may occur safely or not to inform our future policy decisions."

Crafts said a commission would offer "something in the middle" that "opens the doors to the possibility of making a change, but in a thoughtful and well-reasoned way."

At least one bill, An Act to Promote Sustainable Lithium Mining in Maine, sponsored by Rep. Mike Soboleski (the Newry deposit is in his district), would amend the law to "support Lithium mining where ever it's discovered in the state not just in Newry," said Soboleski in an email.

The state's mining coordinator, Mike Clark, declined to comment on the bills, saying he was awaiting final language.

Opening a new mine is a complicated, years-long endeavor anywhere in the world, so the bills, even if they pass, won't allow the deposit in Newry to be mined tomorrow, or even a year or two years from now. Not only does Maine have very strict mining and water quality laws, we are also a home-rule state where most (95%) of the land is in the hands of private landowners. That means towns and cities have a lot of control over what goes on within their boundaries.

Take Pembroke, where the power of the people was on full display last spring, when 129 residents approved an ordinance that put the kibosh on all industrial metallic mineral mining after Wolfden began eyeing a silver mine in the area. And although it's the DEP that issues mining permits (in theory, that is - none have been issued since the law was passed), much of rural Maine, where some of these deposits are found, is governed by the Land Use Planning Commission, adding another layer to the permitting cake. (Newry has its own planning board and is not in LUPC territory.)

Changes to the 2017 law to allow for the Newry deposit to be mined could also open the door for the extraction of other critical minerals, and it looks like Maine may have many: scientists have long known about a massive manganese cache in Aroostook County, and recently discovered the potential for rare earth elements near Pennington Mountain, a remote peak in the far northern corner of the state.

"Northern Maine is full of amazing geologic wonders," Chunzeng Wang, lead author of the paper describing the recent find and professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, told the U.S. Geological Survey. "You never know what is next to discover."

In case you missed it, Annie Ropeik wrote a story for The Maine Monitor on the climate-driven threats to Maine's softshell clam fishery, and debate about statewide solutions to save the sector. She learned a ton reporting this piece and proudly fell in the mud several times while out with clammers in Freeport. Check it out.

Plus, we're proud to announce that she's been selected as a Journalism Fellow with the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative for 2023. She'll use the fellowship to report a big climate project for The Maine Monitor. Stay tuned!

In other Maine news:


Bills bills bills:

His electric bill more than doubled. Regulators are targeting the culprit.

Transmission lines:

The Maine Public Utilities Commission moves forward with a plan to deliver energy from Aroostook county to New England that consists of more than 100 miles of new transmission lines and multiple substations.

And more transmission lines:

Maine ratepayers will pay $1 billion for that wind power line.


Maine businesses push back on disclosing whether their products have PFAS.

Printed house:

UMaine's printed 3D house withstands the test of winter weather.


A new study from the University of Maine finds that salmon deplete their fat stores when stopped by dams.


In Augusta, mixed messages surround the Machias dike project.


The Maine Board of Environmental Protection will meet next week to talk emissions standards and an appeal by Natural Resources Council of Maine of CMP's New England Clean Energy Connect Project (spoiler alert: staff have recommended the BEP deny the appeal).


A New Jersey company is being sued over a Scarborough land sale that fell apart.


The Maine Public Utilities Commission votes on whether to open an investigation into the business practices of Electricity Maine.


A bill that would qualify e-bikes for Efficiency Maine rebates hinges on how it's funded.


Environmental groups and some South Portland residents are urging state lawmakers to quickly pass new rules requiring more stringent monitoring of emissions from petroleum storage tanks.


A nonprofit representing 115 towns in central, eastern and northern Maine has gone back to the drawing board in an effort to relaunch a waste facility in Hampden.


Why does a small Down East utility have some of the state's best electricity rates?


CMP’s political group says workers were targeted by impersonating calls.

More utilities:

CMP foes sue Maine in attempt to get utility-backed question off the 2023 ballot.

Acadia National Park:

The park's summer hiring faces strong ‘headwinds.'

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Kate Cough covers energy and the environment for The Maine Monitor. She's a graduate of Columbia University and an 8th generation Mainer born in Portland who's now decamped Downeast. You can reach her at or @kaitlincough.

Annie Ropeik is a freelance environmental reporter based in Portland and a board member with the Society of Environmental Journalists. You can reach her at or @aropeik, or at her website.

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