June 18, 2013

Maine leaders try and fail to dilute recycling's success

'Product stewardship' regulations – even those with industry and bipartisan support – meet staunch resistance from, among others, a commissioner with former ties to corporate interests.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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.

MONDAY: 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.

Internal emails acquired through public records requests show Cifrino and other technical staff members were upset that they were not consulted during the creation of the DEP's annual product stewardship report, which was overseen by an inexperienced staffer with little or no prior knowledge of the programs.

The resulting report -- released in December 2011 -- was pilloried by doctors, municipalities and environmentalists as technically flawed and one-sided. The report made no attempt to describe the program's benefits, misassigned and inflated costs, and recommended the programs be considered for termination.

While the Thermostat Recycling Corp., the American Chemistry Council and other interested industries sent letters praising the report, critics said it was an embarrassment.

Stung, the DEP has since retreated on the issue. Its December 2012 report on the program admitted "there has been some success with the program's current products and product categories" and recognized they were achieving a range of unexpected benefits, including "job creation, business innovation ... and lowering costs to local governments."

It proposed a number of improvements to the framework law but did not recommend any new products for inclusion under its umbrella.

"The report was well-written this year, and the rhetoric has leveled off," Innes said.

Still, the department's opposition to the industry-sponsored paint bill suggests the administration still takes a dim view of this type of recycling, even when the manufacturers are for it. If it passes, supporters will be waiting to see whether LePage feels strongly enough to exercise a veto.

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