June 17, 2013

Efforts to reduce risks to kids run into a powerful foe

Overseen by a former chemical industry lobbyist, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection resists regulations on substances that may be harmful to children and fetuses.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Scientists and policy experts say unborn children are endangered by at least two types of chemicals for which regulation in Maine has stalled.

Gabe Souza

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From lobbyist to DEP commissioner

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HERE'S WHAT WE FOUND

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation has found Patricia Aho, a former industrial and corporate lobbyist who became commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2011, has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate development industries. Under Aho, the DEP has:

Frozen the Kid Safe Products Act – a 2008 law to protect fetuses, babies and children from potentially damaging chemicals – by blocking efforts to bring more chemicals under the law’s jurisdiction, chemicals produced by Aho’s former lobbying clients.

Reduced enforcement actions by 49 percent against large developers and landowners. Aho had unsuccessfully fought to weaken many of the laws at issue as the longtime lobbyist of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

• Fought to roll back recycling programs that are strongly opposed by former clients of Aho and a still-active lobbyist, Ann Robinson, the governor’s regulatory reform adviser.

Oversaw a purge of information from the DEP’s website and a clampdown on its personnel, restricting their ability to communicate relevant information to lawmakers, the public, policy staff and one another.

THE SERIES DAY TO DAY

SUNDAY: For two years, public servant Patricia Aho has overseen Maine’s environmental protection. But whom does she really serve? Our seven-month investigation points to her former corporate clients.

TODAY: Led by a former chemical industry lobbyist, the Maine DEP has stalled efforts to regulate substances that are potentially harmful to children and to the development of unborn fetuses. 

TUESDAY: So-called “product stewardship” regulations – even recycling efforts with industry and bipartisan support – find staunch resistance at the Maine DEP, where a former corporate lobbyist has taken the helm.

Two other Preti lobbyists, Severin Beliveau and Bruce Gerrity, fought the law in 2008 on behalf of the Personal Care Products Council and the Toy Industry Association, respectively.
Since taking office, Aho has worked to neuter these and other environmental regulations opposed by their current or former industry clients, while Robinson tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to overturn them.

“All of us are concerned when it appears that business or the industry is getting the primary ear of the governor or the Legislature,” says Dr. Lani Graham, who served as the state’s top health official in Gov. John McKernan’s administration and is currently co-chair of the public health committee of the Maine Medical Association.

“Unfortunately, it’s a common pattern that goes back many decades that targets any public health intervention that appears to interfere with business in any way,” she said.

The law has the support of the Maine Medical Association, which represents the state’s physicians, saying it “strikes the right balance between business and public health interests.”

The LePage administration tried and failed to get the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature in 2011 to effectively overturn the Kid Safe Products Act. Instead, it has pivoted to stopping the law in its tracks by refusing to apply it to additional suspected toxins, halting actions that would merely require manufacturers to reveal which of their children’s products contained them.

In the two and a half years since Gov. Paul LePage took office, the DEP has failed to put forth a single new toxin to add to the two types regulated under the previous administration.

Instead, it tried and failed to stop regulation of one of the two chemicals already regulated under the Kid Safe Products Act: bisphenol A, or BPA, which was to be banned from baby bottles and sippy cups. The substance is an endocrine disruptor that even at low doses interferes with the production of hormones in the body, with potentially serious consequences, according to scientific studies cited by the DEP when it called for the ban in 2010. LePage dismissed concerns about BPA, a common additive to plastics, saying “the worst case is some women may have little beards.”

• THE STATES ACT: And ‘Maine is at the forefront’

Maine has been out ahead of the rest of the country in regulating chemicals, but other states have followed its lead, making business more difficult for chemical manufacturers. “Maine is at the forefront on these issues and pushing the boundaries at the state level,” says Sarah Doll, the Oregon-based national director of Safer States, a national coalition pushing for more stringent regulation of chemicals in consumer products. “Other states – California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington – have done parts, but Maine really has all the regulatory pieces lined up.”

States have taken the lead because the relevant federal law – the Toxic Substances Control Act – is weak, requiring that regulators present “substantial evidence” of toxicity before banning a substance, rather than making manufacturers prove it is safe before it’s sold. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly recommended Congress change this, pointing out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was unable to ban asbestos under those provisions. (Congress is considering a bill – the Safe Chemicals Act – that would reform the act, but passage is uncertain.)

“Clearly the federal system is broken, and Maine is piloting some solutions,” says Doll. “There’s a lot of interest in it, so there’s going to be pushback.”

• THE DEFENSE: ‘They just don’t have the staff’

The LePage administration says the reason it has failed to name additional chemicals under the Kid Safe Products Act is because of a lack of means, not a lack of will. It says the DEP has limited staff to deploy on chemical issues and that those available have been tied up dealing with the results of a June 2012 petition by a coalition of environmental groups that ultimately led the BEP to require that BPA be banned from baby-food containers. (BPA had previously been banned for use in baby bottles and sippy cups, with the near-unanimous approval of the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature.)

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Additional Photos

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Patricia Aho, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, is shown at a public hearing in the Hancock County town of Aurora earlier this month. In 2008, when she was lobbying for a number of corporate interests, Aho had fought to stop the Kid Safe Products Act from becoming law. And just weeks before she was appointed to the DEP, Aho was working as the principal lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, which also opposed the law and has sought to weaken it.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

  


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