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Connecting Maine and El Salvador: the metallic mining debate

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At first glance, Maine and El Salvador seem worlds apart, but upon closer inspection similarities emerge. As the price of metals continues to rise and metallic mining companies look to expand their operations throughout the world, Maine and the tiny Central American country face an important similarity: the debate around whether to allow metallic mining.

El Salvador the most densely populated in Latin America is caught up in a battle to protect its water and community wellbeing from industrial mining projects, as it seriously considers becoming the first country in the world to ban large-scale metals mining.

Since 2006, hundreds of communities and thousands of people from across El Salvador, including environmental, community-based, research, legal and religious organizations, have come to call for a ban on metal mining because of the devastating effects of this industry on local water sources and public health. Mineral mining has been called one of the most environmentally destructive industries on the planet, and in El Salvador, runoff from past mining operations has polluted the San Sebastian River with toxic levels of cyanide and iron.

In 2008, the Salvadoran president effectively declared a moratorium on mining projects. In response, two multinational mining corporations, Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining and Milwaukee-based Commerce Group, filed lawsuits against El Salvador in a World Bank trade tribunal for almost two hundred million dollars. 

Now, for the first time in decades, Maine is in the sights of mining companies looking to open large-scale copper, zinc and other metallic mines. Last year, J.D. Irving announced its intentions to mine in Aroostook County, and after lobbying by the company, the Maine Legislature approved an overhaul of the state environmental regulations. If those changes are implemented, mineral deposits throughout Maine, including around Moosehead Lake and Cobscook Bay, could become targets for future mines.

Maine's own mining history is a striking example of what can go wrong with mine sites. The Kerramerican mine in Blue Hill operated for only five years, and today, 35 years after mining ended, the site still needs to be monitored for toxic leaks. The Callahan mine in Brooksville was open for only four years, but left the taxpayers with an estimated clean-up bill of $23 million with the largest parts of the clean-up still ahead. According to Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, '[changes to mining regulations] could have huge environmental consequences for some of Maine's most pristine and treasured natural areas.'

For many, the connections between mining in Maine and El Salvador actually go much farther than policy debates to a more personal connection. Jan Morrill is an Orrington native who traveled to El Salvador first when she was 17 years old on a delegation organized by PICA (Power in Community Alliances). In 2008, she moved to El Salvador, where she worked for almost five years with grassroots community organizations. She saw firsthand the pollution metallic mining can cause and worked closely with communities struggling to keep international mining companies out of their country.  

During the mining debate at the State House in Augusta last year, Morrill submitted testimony based on her experiences in El Salvador. Recently, Morrill moved back to Maine and is now collaborating with local organizations to educate Mainers about the recent changes to metallic mining regulations and the impacts those could have on water and the environment in the state.  

Morrill has been working closely with PICA and the Natural Resources Council of Maine to organize the Bangor presentation of the Water is More Precious than Gold tour. Sandra Carolina Ascencio, a representative of the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining in El Salvador, will be traveling across Canada and the United States to build greater awareness about the issues facing El Salvador and its neighboring countries, denounce mining companies' unjust lawsuits and build relationships with groups in North America, including those confronting their own mining issues.   

Ascencio will be speaking in Bangor on March 29 at the Unitarian Universalist Church (120 Park St.) at 7 p.m. Following Sandra's presentation, NRCM staff Scientist Nick Bennett will speak about the current debate in Maine to relax the state's mineral mining laws including the threats mining poses to Maine's water and wildlife. 

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