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.

Neither Robinson nor Pierce Atwood's Pinza responded to interview requests.

LePage's spokesman, Peter Steele, did not respond to written questions asking about Robinson's advisory role and why the governor wished to eliminate product stewardship programs.

Stopping product stewardship was one of Robinson's priorities. When former Republican Sen. Tom Sawyer applied to be LePage's DEP commissioner, he said he was interviewed for the job by Robinson and two other gubernatorial advisers. Sawyer, the self-described "father" of Maine's first-in-the-nation electronic waste recycling law, said Robinson questioned him on his support for product stewardship.

"It was not lost on me that Ann and I were antagonists in 2002" -- when the e-waste law was debated -- "but such is life," Sawyer said. "I was later told I was tainted as being too 'green,' too pro-environment to be DEP commissioner."

Robinson and LePage's effort to repeal product stewardship programs was stymied by the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature, which actually moved to strengthen, not eliminate, the e-waste program. But having failed at the State House, the mercury thermostat manufacturers opened a new front within the DEP itself.

The failed strategy: No arguing against success

The thermostat program's proponents note that Maine's program is among the most successful in the country in terms of the number of thermostats recovered per capita, a rate nearly twice that of the next competitor, Minnesota, and more than seven times that of Connecticut.

They ascribe this to a $5 redemption fee, or "bounty," paid to people who turn in a thermostat, a feature most state programs do not have. "It has exponentially increased the quantity of thermostats that we have received back," Innes said. "The bounty has worked."

The industry's primary goal was to repeal the bounty, and Aho tried hard to make that happen.

While she and the thermostat companies have not succeeded, it was not for lack of trying. Their efforts -- well-documented in correspondence obtained by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, or NRCM -- offer a window into the ways in which they have operated behind the scenes.

The thermostat manufacturers' attorney, Thomas Doyle, of Pierce Atwood, and industry representatives met with Aho and other DEP officials at least a dozen times during 2011, while the department was preparing its annual report and recommendations regarding the state's product stewardship programs, records show. The DEP did not seek input from any other stakeholders, including environmental groups and town and city governments.

"I just don't think it was part of the requirement or anything," said Ron Dyer, who was in charge of the DEP's Remediation and Waste Management Bureau at the time, and to whom Aho referred questions on the matter. He also said there were only "like one or two meetings" with industry representatives, although the department calendars, e-mails and visitor logs indicate otherwise.

"It seems their point of view was to try to get rid of these programs, so I suppose it's not surprising that they didn't reach out to environmental and municipal organizations that support and believe in these recycling programs," said Pete Didisheim, of the NRCM.

The records also show that Aho tried to have the official responsible for the program, Carol Cifrino, reassigned. The NRCM also obtained a transcript of a voice mail message two industry officials had left for Cifrino the day after LePage's election in which -- thinking they'd hung up -- they joked about getting her fired. Ultimately, Cifrino kept her position.

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