State lawmakers will grapple with a mix of old and new environmental issues this legislative session, taking up measures that range from a renewed push to rewrite the state’s mining laws to a proposed ban on “microbeads” used in soaps and other personal care products.
Gov. Paul LePage’s $6.3 billion budget and the ambitious tax reform proposal built into the governor’s spending plan are widely expected to dominate the legislative session that began this month. Yet with more than 1,500 bill requests submitted, lawmakers will be plenty busy even when they are not talking about the budget.
On Thursday, a coalition of environmental and conservation groups unveiled a priority list of bills they hope will generate bipartisan support in a Legislature in which Republicans and Democrats each control one chamber.
The list of six bills includes policy changes to grow Maine’s solar energy industry, setback requirements for new development near lakes, additions to Maine’s list of protected species, and bond initiatives for home weatherization, the Land for Maine Future program and upgraded culverts for roadway stream crossings.
“We really wanted to focus on areas where we can find compromise and where we can collaborate on ways to protect our lakes, land and wildlife,” said Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine Conservation Alliance.
DIVISIVE ISSUES ON AGENDA, TOO
That said, lawmakers also are gearing up for potentially contentious policy fights over environmental and outdoor issues, including a measure to ban bear trapping and bear hunting with dogs following the failure of a referendum in November that also sought to ban bear baiting.
Critics of Maine’s pesticide regulations once again will push to ban the use of pest-control chemicals on school grounds, to strengthen local control of pesticide regulations, and to take steps to protect Maine’s bee population amid growing concerns that large-scale bee deaths are linked to pesticides.
Supporters of New Brunswick-based J.D. Irving Ltd.’s plans to develop a metallic mine on Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain will renew their push to loosen what they say are unreasonably restrictive mining regulations.
Efforts to overhaul Maine’s mining regulations came to a standstill last year, when lawmakers passed a bill ordering the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to rewrite and resubmit mining rules because critics were concerned that the proposed rules did not adequately protect the environment. LePage vetoed the bill, keeping the existing rules in place.
Lawmakers are expected to take another look at the proposed DEP rules and consider more changes.
Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican who co-chairs the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, expects the mining regulations and bills to tweak Maine’s landfill or solid waste laws to be big issues in his divided committee.
BILL SEEKS TO BAN ‘MICROBEADS’
Saviello is sponsoring a bill that would ban the sale of soaps, toothpaste and other personal care products containing synthetic “microbeads.” The plastic beads, often measuring just a few millimeters, are marketed as exfoliating products, but health and environmental groups warn that the tiny non-biodegradable beads just end up in the environment, where they absorb toxics and are ingested by fish or other wildlife.
Illinois already has adopted a law phasing out microbeads in consumer products, and similar bills are pending in other states, including Vermont, Washington and New Jersey.
Saviello hopes the bill will garner widespread support.
“The (consumer products) industry actually approached me and said, ‘We need to get these things out’ of products,” he said.
Rep. Joan Welsh, a Rockport Democrat who is co-chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, also has introduced a bill to ban microbeads in consumer products.
DISPOSABLE BAGS, KOI, ALEWIVES
Other measures pending in the Legislature include:
• Bills targeting the use of disposable plastic bags and foam-packaging food containers, following the lead of two local ordinances passed by Portland’s City Council last year.
• A bill to allow aquarium owners to keep koi, a type of Asian fish now prohibited in Maine.
• Another attempt to close upper areas of the St. Croix River to alewives, or river herring, just two years after the Legislature ended a years-long debate and reopened the river to the migratory fish.