December 26, 2013

Lawmakers plan to keep close watch on Maine DEP

They'll work to tighten oversight of the department after the Press Herald uncovered failures, but don't expect to investigate its commissioner.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho

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ACCOUNTABILITY BILL

Two bills will be considered by the Legislature when it reconvenes next month, though the bills may ultimately be combined into one “transparency and accountability” bill.

The first, sponsored by McCabe, would require the DEP to report to the Legislature as dam deadlines approach and tightens requirements for public input.

“This will make it more difficult for that kind of lapse to happen, no matter what the reason for it might be,” Johnson said.

The second, sponsored by Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, would require that all rule changes made by the DEP – not just ones deemed to be “substantive” – be reviewed by the Board of Environmental Protection, an independent oversight body.

DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said in an email that the department could not comment on either measure until their precise language is developed.

A third legislative response to the DEP’s perceived shortcomings is not moving forward, thanks to the unexpected opposition of Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. The initiative would have effectively forced the DEP to regulate a class of chemicals called phthalates under the Kid Safe Products Act.

The LePage administration has been criticized by environmental groups for its sluggish implementation of that 2008 law designed to protect children and fetuses from harmful chemicals. In early 2011, the LePage administration sought to repeal it altogether, but was rebuffed by the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature. For nearly three years thereafter, the DEP failed to propose any new chemicals for regulation under the act and attempted to remove a chemical – bisphenol-a – that had already been listed under the act.

An initiative put forward recently by Grant would have directed the DEP to list phthalates, a plastic softener that scientists strongly suspect disrupts the reproductive organs of male fetuses. But that measure was defeated by the legislative leaders Nov. 21 when Sen. Alfond joined his Republican colleagues in opposition.

CONTROVERSIAL SWITCH

Alfond’s vote was controversial in Democratic circles, as the phthalates measure had the high-profile support of Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the past Democratic leader in the House, and former House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D- North Haven. Alfond sent an explanatory letter to his caucus explaining that he “could not ignore that the Governor is moving forward” by proposing four chemicals of his own, so he felt compelled to vote against the phthalates measure to protect the integrity of the process.

But the LePage administration’s proposal is itself controversial. On Nov. 21, the DEP suddenly proposed listing four chemicals under the Kid Safe Act: arsenic, formaldehyde, mercury and cadmium. Proponents of the law pointed out that the move would have no practical benefit, as these chemicals had already been removed from most consumer products in Maine under state and federal laws.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, called the proposed rules “nothing but window dressing” last month and the Environmental Health Strategy Center – a consumer safety group – noted they had been worded in such a way as to specifically exclude pregnant women from protection.

Logan countered Tuesday that they chose the four chemicals because they are “confirmed to have serious adverse health effects on humans” and are “known to be currently being used in common products intended to be used by children” in Washington, the first state to require comprehensive reporting by manufacturers as to what products contained the substances.

A Dec. 17 public hearing on the proposed rules was postponed after Attorney General Janet Mills informed Aho that the DEP had violated state law by not giving stakeholders sufficient advanced notification. The DEP says that hearing is now scheduled for Jan. 14.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

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