June 25, 2013

The lobbyist in the henhouse: Whose interests is Maine’s DEP commissioner serving?

For two years, public servant Patricia Aho has overseen Maine's environmental protection. But whom does she really serve? A seven-month investigation by the Telegram points to her former corporate clients. Part 1 of a 3-day series.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 5)

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Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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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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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.

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.

"Once the state made that decision there was no longer any legally binding obligation on the federal agencies or the dam owners to listen to what anybody has to say in Eustis or any other community," says Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. "It all comes down to money: Having to do studies, having to do recreational things, having limits on what they can draw down affects how much power they can generate and how much money they can get for their shareholders."

"By DEP waiving their authority, it gives the owner the best of all worlds: a non-appealable order that they needn't change or defend and they don't even have to pay for studies," Reardon says. "It's less expensive, more secure and gives them more authority."

The governor appears fully supportive of Aho's handling of the issue. Asked whether LePage had any concerns about the DEP having waived its powers under the Clean Water Act at Flagstaff, the governor's communications director, Peter Steele, gave a one-sentence written response: "The Governor is confident that DEP is appropriately managing the delegated (Clean Water Act) program."

Aho declined to be interviewed about Flagstaff and many other issues raised in this investigation. In mid-April, DePoy-Warren said DEP would not comment or respond to any further questions on this or other issues, saying she and Aho would "instead focus our efforts on the protection of our environment as the people of Maine expect us to do."

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

cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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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



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