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.

Aho and a department spokeswoman declined to be interviewed on the issue.

LePage’s communications director, Peter Steele, said the department had been moving to implement the law. In 2011 it focused  on “analytical work necessary to create the ‘chemicals of high concern’ list, which involved substantial staff resources” at the DEP, he said. In 2012 it had to collect data and contract analysis related to the citizens BPA petition. “This was a significant amount of staff resources for a program that has only one staff person,” he said.

“If DEP doesn’t have to change the program again, the department is ready to focus on and implement the program to determine what are the next priority chemicals,” Steele added.

The ranking Senate Republican on the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, also defends the department’s handling of the program. “They’ve spent 1,500 hours dealing with the BPA petition. How can they focus on something else? They just don’t have the staff,” he says. “I believe that we can protect children, but we need to do it with the resources we have.”

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, disagrees, saying that naming additional chemicals for regulation should be a priority and noting that the legal changes made in 2011 make it easier for the DEP to identify those that are the most dangerous, as they allow the department to rely on work done by other governments.

“Every administration has to make choices, but in my view trying to protect children from dangerous chemicals should be a top priority,” he said. “We should keep putting pressure on the agencies that do this public health work to take action.”

To compel action, Goodall introduced legislation earlier this year – L.D. 1181 – that included a requirement that the department name two chemicals from the list of 49 every year, but that measure was dropped during negotiations with Republicans. The bill still requires manufacturers of the 49 chemicals on the high-concern list to report what products they are found in and is expected to be voted on in the House and Senate this week.

The DEP manager who oversees the Kid Safe Products program, Melanie Loyzim, had testified to legislators that Goodall’s original language would have required the hiring of “at least” seven new full-time staff and amounted to “a big government program focused on churning out rules and processing paperwork, rather than engaging in meaningful analysis and informed decision-making.”

• THE BRIEF: A ‘priority chemical’ remains unregulated

But the department’s explanation fails to take into account why it didn’t take action on a family of chemicals for which most staff work had already been completed when the administration took office and whose manufacturers were among Commissioner Aho’s past lobbying clients.

When LePage was preparing to take office in December 2010, DEP staff had already completed a detailed brief to designate brominated fire retardants – BFRs – as “priority chemicals,” in order to “send a signal to industry ... that they need to consider other methods of fire safety without posing hazards to children’s health.”

Various BFRs, which are used in children’s blankets, clothes and toys, had already been identified as endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and reproductive toxins, according to the brief, which was to be submitted to the Board of Environmental Protection for its January 2011 meeting.

The brief never made it to the meeting, or any of the more than two dozen BEP hearings that have been held since.

LePage’s transition team – whose co-chairs included Robinson and the managing partner of Pierce Atwood, Gloria Pinza – asked the Baldacci administation to pull the BFR brief. They complied as a courtesy, according to Mark Hyland, who was director of the Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management at the time.

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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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