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.

AUGUSTA – Almost everyone seemed to like last month's paint recycling bill.

The paint industry wrote it. Recycling experts endorsed it. Environmentalists said it would help keep poisons out of Maine's land and water. Towns and cities said it would save them money, effort and worry. It had strong Democratic support and a Republican sponsor.

But one powerful party strenuously opposed the bill: the LePage administration.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, headed by former chemical industry lobbyist Patricia Aho, testified against the bill, saying it would create "an entirely new regulatory program" that would increase consumer costs without "guaranteeing" that all paint would be recycled and undermine public support for an existing lead abatement program.

Despite the DEP's objections, legislators on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee recommended Republican Sen. Thomas Saviello's paint recycling bill be adopted. It is expected to go to a floor vote this week.

To those expecting a pro-business administration to support an industry-drafted, Republican-sponsored bill, the DEP's stance came as a surprise, but to those familiar with Aho's past lobbying activities -- and those of Gov. Paul LePage's regulatory reform adviser, Preti Flaherty lobbyist Ann Robinson -- it came as no shock at all.

The paint recycling bill -- L.D. 1308 -- belongs to a category of laws now in disfavor at the DEP: those that require manufacturers of certain products to take them back for recycling at the end of their lives under what is called "product stewardship."

Under Commissioner Aho, the DEP has tried to roll back these programs and prevent new ones from being created. Before joining the department, Aho lobbied against these laws on behalf of clients in the automotive, bottled-water and waste disposal industries.

A seven-month investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram revealed how the DEP has moved against programs and laws opposed by Commissioner Aho's former lobbying clients. In the case of product stewardship programs, this effort has been largely unsuccessful to date.

The corporate fear: Seeing Maine's success spread

Product stewardship is an innovative approach to recycling that shifts the cost of disposing of certain hazardous consumer products from taxpayers (through municipal waste programs) to the consumers who use them (through a recycling fee imposed on manufacturers). The manufacturer of, say, a television or mercury thermostat is responsible for the collection, reuse or recycling of those products, creating an incentive to design and build them in such a way that they can be processed easily and reused at the end of their life span.

Laws already on the books in Maine -- but targeted for elimination when LePage took office -- include the first-in-the-nation product stewardship framework law (which sets out uniform procedures for future programs) and five other laws covering electronic waste, mercury thermostats, cellular telephones, compact fluorescent light bulbs and mercury-bearing automotive switches.

Thirty-two states have at least one such law, but only Vermont and California cover as many product categories as Maine or more.

Maine's programs are considered among the most successful in the country, and they have sharply reduced the amount of mercury, heavy metals and other extremely toxic substances that escape into Maine's environment. But they are unpopular with many manufacturers, who worry that the programs might serve as models for more populous states.

"When we passed some of these laws, they were the first in the nation, and that's why the national industry associations were coming out in protest," said Melissa Walsh Innes, who sponsored several of the laws while serving as a Democratic legislator and is now deputy director of Recycling Reinvented, which promotes product stewardship policies. "They saw it had legs and was working and feared the 'slippery slope' of it spreading to other states."

(Continued on page 2)

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