At risk: Maine’s natural resources, the health of citizens, and tourism

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

February 28th, 2011 

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Maine's Northern Woods are at risk becasue of Gov. La Page photo by Ramona du Houx

Gov. Paul LePage has made proposals that could irreversibly damage Maine’s quality of life, if enacted. If the governor is successful there will be no law stopping big box stores from informing communities about their intentions to build in their backyard, no law protecting at least three million acres of northern Maine for development, and no law requiring manufacturers to take back recyclable goods for disposal. His proposed rollbacks of environmental protections would also reverse a ban on the use of a toxic chemicals linked to cancer in children’s products, amongst a long list of other measures he said are designed to, “open Maine for business.”

A coalition of 24 environmental, conservation, and public-health organizations stated that LePage’s recommendations would weaken decades of successful legislation passed with bipartisan support. Sean Mahoney, executive director of the Maine Conservation Law Foundation, said some of LePage’s proposals may not be legal.

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Lisandro Berry-Gaviria and Anibal Berry-Gaviria bring in the onion harvest. LePage’s proposals could endanger the health and well being of Maine’s children photo Seth Berry

“This list is reckless and appalling. It puts our health at risk; it puts our environment at risk, our clean air, our clean drinking water at risk,” said Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine League of Conservation Voters.

The people of Maine have a long record of voting in favor of environmental concerns and protecting land. Maine protected more than 1.3 million acres under the Baldacci Administration, largely because the people voted for bonds to increase the Land For Maine’s Future program.

Conservationists said relaxing environmental standards and regulations would damage Maine’s brand as a clean and healthy place to visit, work, and live.

If LePage’s anti-regulation measures become law, the Department of Environmental Protection would have to make decisions on permits within 30 days — down from a current six-month time frame. Under the Bush administration, the federal government shortened oil project permitting in much the same way. As a result, oil platforms dominate the oceanfront in the Gulf of Mexico. Accelerating the permitting led to devastating the environment, as illustrated with the Gulf oil spill of 2010. Sustainable forestry practices have increased these last eight years in Maine — that record could be in jeopardy by rolling back regulations.

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At risk: Maine's natural wild places photo by Ramona du Houx

The Plum Creek development plans changed over time with the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), the planning and zoning agency for the state’s unorganized territories. LURC insured citizen input from around the state. Plum Creek’s original plans would have devastated old-growth forests and large parcels of the landscape.

LePage’s proposal calls for not less than 30 percent of LURC’s jurisdiction to be zoned for development — opening up three million acres for possible development . During LePage’s campaign he said he would like to abolish LURC; this measure essentially would accomplish his threat.

“We have to be very careful as we move forward with regulatory reform that we remember that people come to Maine for a lot of reasons. If we are taking risks with our natural environment, and risks with the environmental health of our state, those ripple effects will be felt in the tourism industry, business community, in the public health realm. Those are risks we cannot afford to take,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Cain. “We should not move backwards on our environmental safety and the wellbeing of our natural resources in order to make regulatory changes.

The new governor also wants to repeal a law that prevents sprawl and that protects Maine’s community character by requiring certain large-scale developments to conduct economic impact analysis on local communities.

Maine’s Quality of Place Council, set up during the Baldacci administration, identified Maine’s downtown communities as important economic drivers, because of their period buildings. Many states have destroyed their downtowns with modern buildings. Maine’s unique, classic New England downtowns are major assets, but they have to compete with sprawl and strip malls. People come from all over the world to experience Maine’s downtowns because of their community character.

During the last five years, ecotourism in Maine has been on the rise because of the Nature-based Tourism Initiative. Opening up unorganized territories to development could hurt an industry that has increased in the recession and created jobs. Tourism pumps $10- to $13 billion into the state economy each year and employs 140,000 workers, which is nearly 22 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. Our wildlife-related recreation and fishing contributes approximately $2.5 billion to the economy annually.

Maine’s environmental standards are stronger than other states, because the majority of the people of Maine value their natural resources and want to see them protected for future generations and sustainably managed for forestry purposes. LePage wants to roll back Maine’s environmental standards to national levels.

“The reason some of the standards at the federal level are so weak is because most of the states in the country don’t have a natural resource like Maine’s,” said Pete Didisheim, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The people of Maine have chosen to have stronger safeguards to protect what literally defines the state of Maine.”

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Maine has one of the highest rates of lung disease, affecting more than 120,000 citizens, including children with asthma. Sen. Seth Goodall’s law would reduced sulfur levels by an estimated 60 percent from today’s levels but LePage would like to repeal this law. photo by Ramona du Houx

LePage has also proposed eliminating a law that replaces toxic brominated flame retardant with safer alternatives, and a law that establishes Maine’s first-in-the-nation electronic-waste-recycling program which has become a model for other states. The e-waste recycling law, LD 1892, has saved taxpayers more than $9.6 million dollars and prevented more than 3.3 million pounds of lead and other toxic materials from entering the waste stream and Maine’s environment.

Last year the state passed a new product stewardship law, which creates a process for identifying consumer products for which manufacturers would have to create recycling or take-back programs. LePage wants to eliminate the law and make consumers pay for the recycling.

LePage also wants to reverse a vote taken by the state Board of Environmental Protection to phase out the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in children’s products. In February LePage is quoted in the Bangor Daily News as saying that all he’s heard is that, “if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.”

The chemical is a plastic hardener, used in food containers, baby bottles and cups, that has been scientifically linked to cancer, obesity, and learning disabilities.

“We think the governor’s proposals take us in the wrong direction,” said Matt Prindiville, legislative coordinator for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Here in Maine, toxic chemicals cause at least $380 million in health-related costs every year. If we’re going to lower costs for families and businesses, we need to continue to get the worst-of-the-worst chemicals out of products children are exposed to every day, starting with replacing BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.”

Some of the governor’s three dozen proposals have been sent to the legislative Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform. They are expected to become LD 1, An Act to Ensure Regulatory Fairness and Reform.

Recently, Darryl Brown, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said some proposals were dropped from LD1 because they will be in legislation directed to different committees, not because LePage no longer supports them.

“They will be showing up in future legislation out of the governor’s office or individual bills that are going to be presented by individual members of the Legislature,” said Brown.

The proposals took Maine’s environmental and small business community by surprise because how friendly the measures are to large corporations, and their total disregard for the health and well being of the people of Maine.

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People enjoy summer in Maine on the coast. Gov. LePage’s environmental proposals would impact Maine’s tourism industry and damage the health and well being of the people of Maine.photo by du Houx

“We are shocked and stunned,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “This is an ideological push rather than a reasoned, science-based approach.”

A week before Gov. Paul LePage announced Phase 1 of his regulatory environmental reforms, he addressed several hundred environmentalists and concerned citizens and told them he is, “strong on the environment.”

“And I believe in real, strong environmental laws,” said LePage at that time. “And I would never challenge a strong environmental law that’s based in science.”

“After a few short weeks in office, Gov. LePage wants to reverse the course of history — ignoring science in favor of political pandering to out-of-state chemical industries,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Some of the quality-of-life environmental laws passed from 2000 to 2010 at risk by LePage:

• Rule to restrict the use of the toxic chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles, sippy cups, water bottles, and reusable food containers; passed unanimously by the Board of Environmental Protection

• Clean air law to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution and associated asthma attacks, acid rain, and poor visibility due to haze — LD 1662

• Law to create a transparent process for identifying candidate products for producer-financed collection and recycling programs — LD 1631

• Resolve for DEP to report on best practices to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and promote energy efficiency in new, large-scale commercial development projects — LD 891

• Law to reduce mercury pollution by having lamp manufacturers collect and recycle mercury-containing light bulbs — LD 973; a new federal law prohibits the manufacture of the old tungsten light bulbs, making this law more significant

• Law to ensure adequate fish passage for Maine’s native fisheries when new culverts are created for new roads — LD 1333

• Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act — identifies and phases out the “worst-of-the-worst” toxic chemicals in everyday products that threaten children’s health — LD 2048

• The “Deca law” to replace toxic brominated flame retardant with safer alternatives; Maine firefighters strongly backed LD 1658

• Law to prevent sprawl and protect Maine’s community character by requiring certain large-scale developments to conduct an analysis of the economic impact on local communities — LD 1810

• Law to reduce pollution and promote sustainable reuse and recycling by requiring cell phone providers to recycle cell phones at retail locations.

• Law to help protect significant vernal pools, high- and moderate-value wading bird and waterfowl habitat, and shorebird nesting, feeding, and staging areas

• Law to reduce mercury pollution by having mercury thermostat manufacturers provide incentives for recycling thermostats at participating wholesalers and retailers — LD 1792

• Law to prevent lead poisoning with funding for remediation and direct education on lead-safe work practices for contractors and homeowners; funding raised through 25 cent fee on a gallon of paint — LD 1034

• Maine’s e-waste recycling law makes electronics manufacturers finance the collection and recycling of used electronics; LD 1892 has saved taxpayers more than $9.6 million dollars and prevented more than 3.3 million pounds of lead and other toxic materials from entering the waste stream and our environment

• Law to phase out the toxic brominated flame retardants, Octa- and Penta-BDE in favor of safer alternatives; this law also created a review process to study phasing out the last commercial PBDE flame retardant, Deca-BDE

• Law to phase out pressure-treated wood containing arsenic in favor of safer arsenic- free products — LD 1309

• Law to prevent mercury pollution by requiring automakers to pay for recovery and safe disposal of mercury-containing switches from vehicles before they are scrapped — LD 1921

• Law requiring that Maine dentists install equipment to capture 98 percent of mercury from dental amalgams, before it enters the wastewater

• Law that bans the sale of mercury-added switches, relays, measuring devices, and instruments, and helps improves recovery of old mercury thermostats — LD 1665

Other measures of Gov. LePage’s proposals that would irreversibly change Maine’s environment and the quality of life that makes the state unique:

• Remove all environmental standards for new permitting under the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC).

• Rezone at least 3 million acres of Maine’s North Woods for development.

• Scrap the current LURC Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which is intended to guide development in the North Woods.

• Require every proposed development be rushed through for a permit in 30 days, a pace that would likely make it impossible for DEP staff to manage the workload or ensure that proposals meet minimum legal requirements, or for citizens to have input.

• Eliminate Maine’s right to choose its own environmental safeguards, by weakening environmental protections to the bare minimum requirements in federal law.

• Request that the Board of Environmental Protection be abolished and replaced with a full-time administrative judicial system.