Friday, December 6, 2013
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Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho
Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer
Flagstaff Lake near Eustis, seen here last month with Bigelow Mountain in the background, experiences dramatic changes in water level in summer, thanks to utility drawdowns at a dam on the eastern side of the lake. Residents say the drawdowns adversely affect the quality of life in and around the lake. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, led by Commissioner Patricia Aho, missed a filing deadline and deprived the state a say in how the dam is regulated. The DEP’s inaction cleared the way for the issuance of a new federal license that lacked stricter water-level rules and will remain in effect until 2036. Aho’s office called the blown deadline an oversight, but internal documents and department insiders tell a very different story.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
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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.
THIS WEEK IN THE PRESS HERALD
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.
"But you get into toxics or to land and it's totally different," he says. "That's where the significant changes have taken place."
Aho denied accusations that the staff changes were part of an organized effort to compel the departure or reassignment of particular individuals. "I think our department is doing great work, and I hope that doesn't get lost in the debate about if we are doing something differently," she said. "Yes, we're doing something differently, but to actually enhance the work that they're doing here and let them get out and be in touch with the environment perhaps more than in the other types and parts of their work."
• THE STRATEGY: SEE LAWS BLOCKED, UNIMPLEMENTED, UNENFORCED
With staff at targeted programs of the department on tight reins, Aho moved against laws she and Robinson had been unable to defeat at the State House. Some laws went unimplemented, while others went largely unenforced.
Aho stopped the department's efforts to add additional toxic substances to the two already slated for regulation under the Kid Safe Products Act by the Baldacci administration. An already completed proposal to ban a family of toxic flame retardants was left in the files, where it has sat since LePage's election in 2010.
She also sought to foil product recycling laws that keep mercury and lead out of the state's air, water and soil. At Pierce Atwood, the disclosures show, Aho had tried unsuccessfully to stop passage of the laws on behalf of mercury thermostat manufacturers, paper companies, automakers and other clients. (Maine is second only to California in the number of product categories covered by such laws, but a majority of states have at least one on the books.)
With Aho at the helm, the DEP created a report to the Legislature recommending these programs be considered for termination based on evidence critics charged was flawed and one-sided. No new products have been proposed for the program under Aho and LePage.
Aho's actions also benefited the owners of the Flagstaff dam -- Florida Power & Light and its NextEra Energy subsidiary -- who received a new federal license last summer containing water level rules it preferred. They will remain in effect until 2036. (In March of this year, FPL sold all 19 of its Maine dams to Brookfield Renewable Power, a subsidiary of a Canadian asset management group, for approximately $760 million.)
• THE FLAGSTAFF LAKE EFFECT: HOW MAINERS LOST AN OPPORTUNITY
By the time Aho took over the department in the summer of 2011, the fight for Flagstaff Lake had been years in the making. But residents, negotiating with the company from a position of weakness, often came up short.
In many summers over the past decade, the Florida energy company FPL dropped Flagstaff's water levels so low that by early August the local youth recreation program had to stop holding swimming lessons at the local beach and bused the children to a pool 20 miles away. Other residents reported foul odors wafting from the exposed lake bed and winds carrying silt and sand into a local elementary school and an elderly housing complex.
"You lose a couple feet here and people have to haul their boats," says Wyman, the longtime Eustis selectman. "You pull three or four feet and you get mud flats. They drain it out too much and you get sandstorms."
The problems kick in when summertime lake levels fall below three feet from what's called "full pond," townspeople report. At 4.5 feet below full pond capacity -- the level the newly issued federal license allows in September -- the Eustis end of the lake becomes a mud flat, with only the old channel of the Dead River containing any water. When the Telegram visited in mid-April, the Eustis end of the lake looked much as the town described it in regulatory filings: "a nearly empty bathtub surrounded by a dark ring."
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Current and former employees of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say they’ve been pressured against vigorously implementing or enforcing laws that have long been opposed by companies represented by Commissioner Patricia Aho’s former employer, Pierce Atwood, the state’s largest law firm. The firm’s Portland office building on Commercial Street is pictured earlier this month.
Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer
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A sign warns about water-level changes at Flagstaff Lake in Eusis that could result from decisions by owners of the Flagstaff dam.
Colin Woodard / Staff Writer