Commissioner David Littell of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection June/July 2007 By Ramona du Houx David Littell takes everything into account when determining the best course of action to take for Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. His energy, enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and legal expertise serve him and the state well. Before he became commissioner he worked in the private sector as […]
Commissioner David Littell of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection
By Ramona du Houx
David Littell takes everything into account when determining the best course of action to take for Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. His energy, enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and legal expertise serve him and the state well. Before he became commissioner he worked in the private sector as a lawyer for Pierce Atwood for eleven years, and was a Navy lieutenant. He leads the DEP with distinction and integrity.
“I love my job. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do — to protect the environment and the public health of the people of Maine,” said Littell. “People in Maine spend a lot more time outside enjoying Maine’s natural wonders. Maine citizens across the board value the environment more than people in many other states.”
Astute, witty, and focused on the task at hand, he has led the agency through a time of transition and of great challenge. As he stated in his testimony before the Natural Resources Committee in Augusta, “Due in large part to Maine’s tremendous natural environment, we are experiencing a significant influx of people looking to live here; retirees and people simply looking to escape urban areas choked by pollution, traffic, and the lack of any real environment. The building sector of our economy is particularly strong, but there is a downside: increased sprawl, destruction of wildlife habitat, and development pressure, particularly on marine and inland water bodies.
“Thus, as per capita income, exports, and the number of Mainers working all increase, it’s the DEP’s job to ensure the environment flourishes as well. While Maine’s economy has grown, the DEP and this committee have strengthened our programs that keep Maine’s air, water and land clean, enhancing our environmental protections.”
Everyday functions of the DEP include cleaning up spills, reviewing and approving permit applications, and conducting compliance and enforcement activities. Over 2,500 spills were cleaned up in 2006 alone.
“We recently celebrated reaching the EPZ ground level ozone requirements which we have been working on for thirty years. Ozone is a very significant contaminant,” said Littell. The monitoring of the ozone has shown levels in Maine steadily going down. The state had no ozone warning days last year, which were common ten years age. “When the ozone level goes up, respiratory aliments go up. It is a credit to the state as well as to the regional efforts and proves how important regulation is.”
Many other duties have been placed upon DEP staff in recent years, as the governor believes strongly in protecting Maine’s environment. The DEP embraced the governor’s new directives.
“The staff here are wonderful to work with. They are incredibly talented, smart, dedicated public servants, which I think makes this department different,” said Littell. “Personnel that work at the DEP have outstanding credentials, with many of them having PhDs or masters, and some were lawyers, biologists, and engineers in the private sector. All of the people working at the DEP could easily make higher incomes in the private sector, but they choose to be here because they believe in their job.”
When Baldacci entered office in 2003, he directed the agency to develop a Climate Change Action Plan to assess and address climate change in Maine. The plan was the first in the nation and is being implemented step by step.
Maine has led the way for the nation with the Climate Action Plan, with California following suit in having a legislative commitment to specific greenhouse gas reduction goals. Several of the 54 strategies are already being implemented, including adoption of greenhouse gas emissions standards starting with model year 2009 motor vehicles.
Littell commented on some of the milestones the DEP has achieved since he has been there.
Clean Car Act —
The Clean Car law adopting the vehicle greenhouse gas standards assures that the cleanest-burning, lowest-emitting vehicles, that are manufactured, are available for sale in Maine.
“Before we enacted the law we met with auto manufactures. They warned us that Maine citizens would be forced to go out of state to buy cars they wanted,” said the commissioner. “The governor listened to them patiently and then told them that he didn’t want to make another call to a Maine family of a service person that had been killed in Iraq because of America’s oil dependency. Supporting a measure that would help the environment, as well as reduce our energy dependency on foreign oil, was what he was going to do. The room felt silent as the auto manufactures realized that they would never change this governor’s mind.”
The passage of the law didn’t sit well with the car manufactures, and they took legal action against Maine. The Supreme Court recently ruled, in May, that states maintain their right to regulate emissions in accordance with the Clear Air Act. “The Court’s decision was a great victory for the state,” said Littell.
The Carbon Challenge —
By January 2006, the Governor’s Carbon Challenge had recruited more than 54 businesses, organizations, communities, and individuals to voluntarily set carbon reduction goals. With technical assistance available from the department, the participants have stepped forward to assess and reduce their impacts on the global environment.
“We’ve seen more interest in the governor’s challenge than we have the capacity to handle. Our goal was originally to sign up 50 companies or municipalities, which we have exceeded,” said Littell. “We’re having more folks that want to come through that door. In order to handle capacity, we’re working with the Public Utilities Commission to help out with the volunteers. They are wonderful companies to work with. In almost every case where we have helped a company, they have found it’s great for their bottom line, for it reduces fuel costs dramatically.”
Aquatic Infestations being Eliminated
The Legislature passed a law that allowed volunteers to help eradicate infestations. Over 40,000 courtesy boat inspections were conducted in 2005. These inspections caught three transfers of invasive plants from boat trailers coming from infested waters out of state.
“We are really an island in a sea of infestations,” said Littell. “Maine only has 27 lakes or ponds left that currently have infestations, compared to the hundreds of lakes and ponds in surrounding states and Canada. The volunteers check boats before and after they are pulled out of the water for any signs of an infestation. “Some of these plants come back to life even when they have been out of the water for a long time. Since the volunteering legislation passed, we have had only two infestations.”
The DEP’s focus with infestations is on prevention, and it’s working amazingly well with only three paid personnel working on this issue for the entire state. “They’ve been tremendous in working with the volunteers.” This is the first year since the program began with no additional infestations.
Protections for Vernal Pools and Significant Wildlife Habitat —
Last year the Legislature passed a bill protecting vernal pools which are breeding grounds for amphibians. These frogs, salamanders and turtles are a food source for eagles, hawks and other mammals. About five and a half acres around a pool is protected from development. Shore birds were also protected. With many laws, some people object. Realtors that only see the value in the price of property have been known to disagree with environmental regulations. This year protecting the pools and bird habitats came under fire.
“Once you pave over a vernal pool you can’t get it back. Once you develop an area that is a bird habitat you can’t get it back,” said the commissioner. “Some realtors claimed that regulations were devaluing properties when, in fact, a piece of land that has protection regulations on it will be worth more in the near future. Some homeowners have complained that when they want to cut down a tree, they can’t. I testify at the public hearings every year. Usually, the Legislature is very good concerning environmental issues.”
Who testifies at committee meetings has a great impact on the outcome of protection bills. Citizens concerned about preserving Maine’s natural habitat are encouraged to testify.
Littell has a reasoned approach and listens to everyone’s concerns, never faltering from the DEP’s mission. With the sea bird issue, a compromise was reached.
There is an ongoing debate over regulations, but it is clear the commissioner of the DEP wants to ensure Maine remains Maine.
“We are preserving important natural areas, despite significant development that is taking place, by channeling development away from the higher value habitats. In this way we are going to keep Maine — Maine,” said Littell.
Coastal Vessel Discharge Monitoring Program —
As mandated by the Legislature, the DEP has now fully implemented cruise-ship permitting and monitoring to protect Maine’s harbors and coastal waters. Casco Bay was designated a “no-discharge zone,” which means no waste can be put into the bay from boats. Littell would like the no-discharge zone to extend to all of Portland and eventually all of Maine.
“That’s the goal, but federal regulations mandate that there have to be pump-out stations for boats to use in no-discharge zones. Because of this restriction, it will take longer for other coastal areas to become no-discharge designated areas. The DEP is working with coastal towns and marinas to ensure that eventually all coastal areas will be designated.
“We have a Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention, a School Bus emissions program, and Mercury Reductions. Raw sewage has been removed form all Maine’s lakes. Strom water runoff measures are taking hold. We have a landmark Electronics Waste program where manufacturers must assume the recycling costs, giving them the incentive to design future products using less toxic materials,” said Littell. “We’re getting a lot done.”
Over the years that Littell has worked at the DEP there have been unforeseen challenging issues.
“Our people were called in when the Lincoln Mill closed and kept the mill warm for three months. There were days before the buyers appeared that it looked as though things may not work out,” said the commissioner. “It was something the DEP had never done before, so we learned along the way.”
“When the BRAC commission proposed closing DEFAS Limestone and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the governor asked for our help,” said Littell. “The economic impact evidence was submitted and proved that closing the facilities would cause a recession in Maine. But every state had evidence that economic hardships would occur wherever a base closed. Staff here spent two and a half intensive weeks putting together a legal brief pertaining to the environmental impact of closing Portsmouth, proving it would be more expensive to close than to remain open. For personnel here it’s satisfying to know that legally, that was the criteria that the commission used to take Portsmouth Naval Shipyard off the BRAC list.”
There are a number of pending bills in the Legislature that the DEP is encouraging and have helped put forward. The most important is the governor’s bill that makes Maine a partner in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — the first mandatory cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions in U.S. history.
Last March representatives from the United Kingdom visited Maine to learn more about the steps the state is taking to stem global warming, including RGGI.
“What the British have found is that their environmental and consulting community has really gained from being on the front, dealing proactively with carbon reductions. If we really are serious about dealing with global warming, we have to deal with it in the regulatory context, as well as voluntary measures. RGGI is the most advanced measure to impose real regulatory action,” said Littell. “Being one of the first states with RGGI will help create new businesses in Maine and help existing businesses.”
One plan unique for Maine under RGGI would help sustainable forestry in the state. Basically, foresters that use sustainable forestry practices would get credits for doing so, making sustainable forestry more economical than clear cutting.
“Maine is the most forested state in the nation,” said Littell. “The proposal will be to sequester carbon in their forest management lands. This keeps more carbon on forestry sustainable lands. It’s hoped that wood harvesters will change their practices to sequester more carbon out of the atmosphere so they will grow more fiber on the land and manage it more actively. This will potentially be another funding source to bring money into sustainable forestry management. Encouraging an economic model that allows sustainable practices to have additional resources come into them is absolutely key for the long term, for that industry in Maine.
“Working for Maine and the Maine economy is how we are looking at the proposals for RGGI,” concluded Littell. “A strong economy and strong environmental protection go hand in hand.”
With Commissioner Littell at the helm of the DEP, Maine has a strong environmental leader.