Hundreds of letters are being mailed this month to Maine Mall-area businesses urging them to join a public-private effort to identify and treat storm water discharge polluting the Long Creek watershed.

Ann Gosline, a facilitator with the Long Creek Planning Project, said the letter seeks to inform property owners of the voluntary planning effort under way to restore Maine’s most polluted watershed.

Gosline said the letter seeks to give “all stake holders a voice in the process.”

The group is inviting property owners to a meeting at the Marriott-Sable Oaks on June 10, where it will detail voluntary efforts to treat storm water pollution from parking lots and rooftops at commercial businesses.

Major South Portland businesses like the Marriott and Fairchild Semiconductor are represented on the Long Creek Planning Project, but many smaller commercial operations still do not know about the effort or concerns by environmental officials about Long Creek.

The group also may update property owners on a separate legal effort by an environmental law group to force a federal-mandated cleanup of the watershed, under the Clean Water Act.

The Conservation Law Foundation filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency on March 7, requesting that it regulate storm water pollution in the Long Creek watershed generated by commercial developments.

The EPA is reviewing the petition, which could affect dozens of mall-area business owners, including big box stores, drive-through coffee shops, car dealerships and hotels. The agency has 90 days to respond.

Steve Hinchman, a staff attorney with the foundation, said last week that he respects the voluntary efforts of the Long Creek Planning Project, which he predicts will make the long-term cleanup more efficient and less costly.

But, Hinchman added, that it “historically has been cheaper for businesses to ignore their pollution and let the environment pay the cost. This petition establishes the legal precedent.

“If some level of EPA permit is required, the cleanup will be mandatory, not at the discretion of individual property owners. Our goal is to make sure everyone is on a level playing field.”

The Maine Mall, which recently created a plan for treating its storm water runoff, has now backed off on installing the $2 million system since canceling plans for a major mall renovation.

Jim Graham, a spokesman for mall owner General Growth Properties, said that mall officials will “revisit” the plan to improve its storm water treatment system, after it decides its future expansions plans for an empty department store at the mall site.

Councilor Tom Blake, who is a member of the Long Creek Planning Project, said he believes most businesses prefer to wait and see the plans that emerge from the public-private partnership for offering financial assistance or cost-sharing to mitigate storm water damage.

The planning project hopes to have recommendations done by August.

Blake says he suspects that the planning group will be able to move more swiftly in mitigating pollution problems in Long Creek than state or federal agencies can do through regulation.

Members of the partnership still hope that the voluntary efforts will allow them to avoid regulations and a permitting process for storm water discharge, which they say would be costly for their businesses.

Blake said that the poor economy would make it difficult for the state Department of Environmental Protection to enforce any new rules that the federal EPA or a court might impose for a cleanup.

“The Long Creek Planning Project is trying to take the lead to fix these problems,” he said. “This is a way to get some of the work done.”

But Hinchman says the state will be required to enforce any ruling by the federal EPA makes, regardless of its finances.

“States have tried from the very beginning to avoid enforcement of the Clean Water Act, because of finances, but the courts have thrown out that argument,” Hinchman said.

Hinchman says the voluntary collaboration among stakeholders for fixing pollution at Long Creek should make the long-term cleanup process going easier and less costly.

“The stakeholders group is already trying to devise a remediation plan. They’re looking for solutions,” he said. “This effort minimizes the cost and burden.”

Gosline said the group has hired consultants – using a $117,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Protection – to come up with solutions for restoring the Long Creek watershed, once a habitat for freshwater fish and other aquatic life.

The remedies may range from planting vegetation along stream banks to creating detention ponds for filtering water runoff from parking lots.

“We’re prioritizing strategies for cost effective approaches for restoring the water quality,” Gosline said.

She said that part of the planning effort will be to identify founding sources, which could range from grants, user fees or dollars generated by so-called TIF zones, or tax increment finance districts.

The group’s letter is being sent to commercial businesses in the Maine Mall area, as well as property owners throughout the Long Creek watershed, which extends into Scarborough, Westbrook and Portland.

The Long Creek Planning Project – a coalition of private businesses, government agencies and nonprofits – has a mission to create a plan for restoring Long Creek and identify funds to help property owners install and upgrade storm water treatment systems.

The watershed, which flows into the Fore River and Casco Bay, is classified by the state Department of Environmental Protection as one of the most polluted bodies of fresh water in Maine.

EPA asked to force Long Creek cleanup

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