AUGUSTA — Maine environmental regulators are proposing a 40 percent increase on the wastewater fees paid by hundreds of municipalities and businesses to address a shortfall that officials said is affecting enforcement of water quality laws.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection says the program responsible for ensuring compliance with the federal Clean Water Act will be running in the red by July 2021 unless lawmakers approve a fee increase. That could force the DEP to lay off additional staff in a program that already has several vacancies.

“We realize that as a percentage increase, it is a relatively large increase,” Brian Kavanah, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality, told lawmakers Wednesday. “Frankly, we wish this could have been addressed several years ago before it became the pressing situation that it is now, but that was not the case.”

Kavanah said the department has known about the financial squeeze for four or five years, since about midway through the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage.

Paper mills in Millinocket, East Millinocket, Lincoln and Bucksport had closed, eliminating about 16 percent of the fee revenue flowing to the program. At the same time, the federal grants that provided roughly one-third of the program budget are expected to decrease 3 percent next year after several years of flat funding.

Kavanah said the department is “struggling” because of current vacancies – held open because of tight budgets – in enforcement, inspections and permitting. Those vacancies then affect the use of enforcement as a deterrent for stormwater and wastewater discharge violations.

“In the enforcement program at one point in time, we had four staff (and) at this point we have 1½,” Kavanah told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “So we have a backlog of cases and are not able to process them as quickly as we would like. And that affects our decision-making moving forward as far as which things would go to enforcement and which wouldn’t.”

The proposed 40 percent fee increase would affect 940 current license holders, ranging from municipal wastewater treatment plants and paper mills to aquaculture facilities and “snow dumps.” Municipal treatment plants would see fees increase ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, while the standard fee for new applications for discharges from a “major industrial facility” would jump more than $13,000.

“These are simply the costs of doing business,” Rep. Ralph Tucker, the Brunswick Democrat sponsoring the bill on the DEP’s behalf, told his fellow committee members. “The department has persuaded me that these fees are justified. They will protect our investment in an enforcement infrastructure and it will avoid hazardous events which may occur.”

The proposal drew support Wednesday from numerous environmental groups, including Friends of Casco Bay, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and Maine Audubon.

Susan Gallo, executive director of the Maine Lakes Society, said climate change is already affecting Maine in the form of warmer waters and larger storms. That means Maine needs to be “on top” of monitoring and technical assistance for entities that discharge into Maine’s waters, which are a public resource.

“This is definitely not the time to let any of this slide,” Gallo said. “It is even more important that we make sure DEP staff have the tools they need in their toolbox to make sure that these permits meet the high grades that we need to have in the future.”

Abe Furth, co-owner of Orono Brewing Co., said Maine’s thriving and renowned craft beer industry is entirely dependent on clean water. Furth said clean water is so important to his end product that he “would be happy to pay more if I had to to keep the quality where it is.”

“We have good water here in Maine,” said Furth. “I have been to other states that don’t, and it shows.”

There was surprisingly little opposition to the DEP proposal Thursday, although larger industries that would bear the brunt of the increase will almost surely communicate their views to lawmakers. Several committee members also expressed concerns about such a large fee increase in one year.

“I’d like to point out that every business in this state is struggling to fill positions, whether they be technical or non-technical,” said Rep. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington. “We can’t solve all of the problems by raising taxes on everybody. It won’t be the problem solver.”

The Maine Auto Recyclers Association opposed a proposal that it estimated would increase fees by $300 to $573 a year. Instead of raising fees on the industry, Darryl Brown Jr. of Brown’s Exit 27 Salvage in Brunswick, suggested that the DEP track down other operators that are flying “under the radar” and not currently being regulated by the stormwater permit requirements.

“We all support the Clean Water Act and we are all doing our part,” Brown said of industry members currently living up to their permitting obligations.

But Tim Haskell, superintendent of the York Sewer District, said he viewed the proposal as equivalent to his water district occasionally having to raise rates to maintain critical infrastructure. The DEP has not received adequate investment, Haskell said, and he said a $700 fee increase would come out to about a 15-cent increase per ratepayer.

“The fee increase is necessary,” Haskell said.

 


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