Politics

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.

"We had opposition here, too, when we first started it years ago," said Mark Parent, a Baptist pastor who was the Conservative Party's environment minister in Nova Scotia when that province started mandating the recycling of paint and electronic waste.

"But when people started to see that it created new industries and created jobs and gave us the self-pride of being a clean province," Parent said, "that went away."

The environmental community regards Maine's product stewardship programs as a smashing success. The Natural Resources Council of Maine estimates the 4-year-old e-waste program has recycled 40 million pounds of electronic gear -- including 4 million pounds of lead -- and saved municipal taxpayers more than $11 million.

In April, four national groups identified Maine's mercury thermostat program as the most successful in the country, in large part because it includes a $5 incentive for people to recycle their old thermostats. The joint report by the National Resources Defense Council, the Clean Water Fund, the Product Stewardship Institute and the Mercury Policy Center found that in 2011, Mainers returned more thermostats per capita than people in any other state save Vermont, which modeled its program after Maine's.

"Together, these two programs are consistently the national leaders," the report said.

The memo: From corporate request to administration policy

But Maine's product stewardship programs have always faced headwinds.

During the Baldacci administration, affected industries hired lobbyists from two of the state's biggest law firms -- Preti Flaherty and Pierce Atwood -- to fight the laws. Lobbying disclosures show that when Aho worked at Pierce Atwood, she fought the framework law and the current mercury thermostat recycling law as a lobbyist for Casella Waste Systems, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, Nestlé Waters North America, Verso Paper and thermostat manufacturer Honeywell.

LePage's regulatory reform adviser, Ann Robinson of Preti Flaherty, also lobbied against the framework law for the Maine Automobile Dealers Association.

Some of these clients saw in LePage's election an opportunity to weaken or repeal the laws. Honeywell and two other thermostat manufacturers sent a letter to the governor-elect in the care of Pierce Atwood managing partner Gloria Pinza, who served on his transition team. The manufacturers sent the letter a few days before LePage's inauguration through their shared association, the Arlington, Va.-based Thermostat Recycling Corp.

In the letter, the companies wrote LePage that they were "respectfully requesting your help" to improve "the effectiveness" of Maine's mercury thermostat take-back program "and in creating a more cooperative and productive working relationship" between DEP and themselves.

The memo made its way to Robinson -- herself still a registered lobbyist for the automobile dealers -- who was compiling LePage's regulatory reform agenda. In the agenda -- compiled in a color-coded binder acquired through a public records request -- Robinson included recommendations to take action against product stewardship laws that "ensures that manufacturers do not have to pay to recycle their consumer products" -- language that was included in the controversial list of regulatory reform proposals LePage submitted to the new Legislature in January 2011.

The framework law -- which created a procedure under which the DEP could identify and put forward worrisome chemicals for possible regulation -- was slated to be repealed altogether.

"I know they are a business-friendly administration, but it was very bizarre to see a contract lobbyist essentially writing policy for the administration and targeting product stewardship," said 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.

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