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

(Continued from page 3)

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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.

Once in office, the LePage administration never reintroduced the BFR paperwork. It could legally have done so at any time in its first year and a half in office, according to Belliveau, who tracked the program closely. Aho was in charge of the DEP for more than a year during this window, but the completed BFR paperwork sat dormant in her department’s files.

Asked why the governor’s team killed the BFR brief, LePage’s communications director attempted to blame it on Baldacci’s team. “In 2010, prior to the LePage administration, DEP decided not to pursue the naming of (BFRs),” Steele said in a written statement. “We cannot speak for the former administration.” He did not respond to follow-up questions sent June 3.

In 2007, Aho and her Pierce Atwood colleagues were lobbyists for the Dallas-based Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an alliance of four chemical companies that produced BFRs, and fought against laws that restricted some of them.

BFRs have recently been identified as a likely cause of the high rates of cancer in firefighters, who inhale them when fighting house fires. In a newly published study in the journal Chemosphere, Susan Shaw, director of the Blue Hill-based Marine Environmental Research Institute, found concentrations of BFRs in San Francisco firefighters’ blood at levels two to three times that of the general population, and in some cases hundreds of times greater.

“We’re connecting the dots on why firefighters have such high rates of cancer and what chemicals are causing them,” says Shaw, “We should not be putting these toxic substances into furniture and television sets and certainly not in home and baby products.”

Various BFRs that would have been covered by the proposed rule have been banned by the European Union from consumer electronics and other electrical equipment. A United Nations body, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, has voted for global bans on three of them.

“These have been identified as priority chemicals all over the world, and the Maine DEP would not have been going out on a limb at all in identifying this class of toxic and harmful chemicals,” says Matt Prindiville, the Rockland-based associate director of the Product Policy Institute, a policy and advocacy organization that seeks to reduce the environmental effects of consumer products. “But instead they decided to cave in to the chemical industry.”

• THE PERSONNEL SHIFT: Primary staffer is reassigned

The author of the BFR brief, Andrea Lani, fared little better.

The LePage administration took early action against Lani, who was the primary staffer responsible for implementing the Kid Safe Products Act.

She was reassigned to handle public records requests and replaced with a less-qualified employee in 2011, after she testified as a private citizen in favor of the ban on BPA. (Her story is told in more detail on Day 1 of the series.)

Shortly after reassigning Lani, Aho also eliminated the half-time data management position for the program, even though it cost taxpayers nothing, as it was entirely funded by fees paid by chemical manufacturers, according to Belliveau, who criticized these decisions in a June 2011 letter to Aho.

Aho also placed the program under the direct supervision of a political appointee, Ron Dyer, who was then the director of the DEP’s remediation and waste management bureau.

Aho declined to comment, and previously wrote Belliveau that she would not discuss her personnel decisions.

Other chemicals on the “high concern” list include familiar toxins such as formaldehyde, benzene and cadmium, and lesser-known substances such as the gasoline additive MTBE and four members of the paraben family, which are used as preservatives by the drug and cosmetics industries. It also includes three brominated fire retardants out of the more than 100 that would have been identified under the aborted submission created under the Baldacci administration.

Like phthalates, parabens are endocrine disruptors found in a wide range of products, including baby shampoos, makeup and lotions, but they disrupt female rather than male hormones.

“We know it binds to the estrogen receptors and that there are multiple animal studies documenting effects, but the epidemiology isn’t there yet to justify an outright ban,” says Deborah Rice, the toxicologist who compiled the 49-chemical list at the Maine CDC. “But the public has a right to know if it’s in stuff, that if they buy a cream for their baby, they can tell if it has parabens in it or not.”

“These are not chemicals that were drawn out of a hat; they have been identified after exhaustive examination by toxicologists and physicians and the Endocrine Society and on and on,” says Graham, the former CDC director, of the 49 chemicals on the list. “It seems like common sense to me to at least get some protections from them for the next generation of Maine people.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

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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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