The Newry lithium deposit falls under the 2017 mining law and DEP rules

Chunks of kunzite, a variety of lithium-bearing crystals found in Newry, are for sale at the Rock and Art Shop in Bar Harbor. Kate Cough photo

NEWRY — A recent decision by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will make it harder for a Newry couple to extract lithium from a deposit on their land in this small Oxford County town.

In a July 8 letter to Mary and Gary Freeman, who own the land and discovered the deposit, Mark Stebbins, director of field services for the Bureau of Land Resources, wrote that the operation would be considered a metallic minerals under state regulations. This means it would be treated more like a copper or silver mine, rather than a limestone or granite quarry, as the Freemans had hoped.

Maine’s Metallic Mineral Mining Act, passed in 2017, is considered one of the strictest mining laws in the country. Since the law was passed, only one company, Wolfden Resources, has publicly expressed interest in testing it, launching proposals for mines in Pattern and Pembroke. The company has yet to apply to the DEP for a large-scale mining permit in either location.

Wolfden faced strong opposition local residents of both locations, an indication of the difficulty there will be in licensing a new metal mine in Maine. Pembroke recently passed an ordinance prohibiting industrial-scale metal mining operations, and Wolfden withdrew a rezoning application to Patten, which was needed before he could apply to DEP, after officials have indicated they will reject it.

The potential of lithium discovery in Newry is staggering: at current market prices, the deposit, believed to contain 11 million tonnes of ore, is valued at approximately $1.5 billion and is estimated to contain a higher percentage by weight of lithium than any other deposit known in the world. Measuring up to 36 feet long, some of the lithium-bearing crystals are among the largest ever discovered, and news of their discovery has captured international attention.

Lithium is a key component of most large battery systems, including those found in electric vehicles. The United States has large reserves of lithium, but produces less than 2% of the world’s annual supply, much of which comes from a single large-scale mine in Nevada. US officials they pushed increase the domestic supply of critical minerals, including lithium. But it turns out to be complicated, because the defenders Raising concerns on environmental destruction and tribal and water rights.

The Freemans proposed drilling and blasting to remove the spodumene – the mineral that contains the lithium – then crushing it in a nearby quarry. The crushed spodumene would be sorted, bagged and tagged in an indoor facility. Under the Freemans’ plan, none of the rock would be chemically processed or separated in Maine.

Newry’s discovery presented the state with a dilemma. Most minerals contain metallic elements, but “metallic mineral” does not have a commonly accepted meaning in the scientific community. This makes it difficult for state regulators to determine what is considered a metallic mineral under the 2017 law, as lawmakers have left it somewhat open to interpretation.

Example: Maine has a rich history of limestone quarrieswhich contains metallic calcium and is used for its calcium content in the manufacture of cement.

But limestone mining in Maine is regulated by quarrying standards, not mining law. That’s partly because there’s a long history of limestone mining in Maine, and partly because limestone mining doesn’t pose the same environmental risks as mining base metals like iron, copper, lead or zinc.

Base metals are usually found in sulphide deposits which, when exposed to air or water, can create sulfuric acid. Once sulfuric acid production begins, it can be difficult to stop, polluting waterways for decades. That’s what’s behind acid mine drainagein which rivers and streams take on a sickly orange hue.

Several geologists said last fall that it made “no sense” to put the Newry lithium deposit in the same regulatory category as base metals because, like limestone or granite, it does not pose the same environmental risks.

“These exposed rocks now have been there for 200 million years and they haven’t dissolved,” said William “Skip” Simmons, mineralogist and co-author of a paper describing Newry’s findings. “I have no idea why metal mining would apply to this type of mine. It makes no sense to me.

DEP’s Stebbins acknowledged in the July 8 letter that mining spodumene, the mineral that contains lithium, is in many ways “comparable to mining limestone or granite” and that the 2017 law focused primarily on sulphide deposits, the mining of which poses a “much greater environmental risk”.

The letter also concedes that the 2017 law’s restrictions and regulations “exceed what would be necessary to enable environmentally responsible mining” of lithium-containing crystals.

Regardless of all that, spodumene still falls under Maine’s Metallic Minerals Mining Act, Stebbins wrote, because there is no regulatory history in Maine and the legislature hasn’t made it clear. excluded.

The Freemans can appeal the DEP’s decision.

Mary Freeman, reached by telephone, declined to say whether they would.

This story was originally posted by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic news organization.

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