by Susan Sharon
MPBN radio news story
The LePage administration has released a list of proposed regulations targeted for outright repeal, relaxation or reform and environmentalists are calling it “extreme” and “reckless.” Some of the proposals will require legislative approval. Others could be done by administrative rule-making. In either case, alarms are being sounded on a variety of fronts. The governor’s proposals include everything from requiring development in at least 30 percent of Maine’s North Woods, possible elimination of Maine’s first-in-the-nation electronic waste recycling program, relaxation of air pollution regulations and a rollback of any state regulation that is more strict than federal law.
Just last week, Gov. Paul LePage addressed a room full of several hundred environmentalists and concerned citizens and told them he is “strong on the environment” and that he not out to gut environmental regulations unless they fail to meet a certain threshold.
“And I believe in real, strong environmental laws,” he said to applause. “And I would never challenge a strong environmental law that’s based in science.”
But the governor also said he believes in flexibility and in making Maine’s regulatory environment less adversarial. And environmentalists say he’s gone well beyond that with what’s being called “Phase 1” of his regulatory reform proposals.
“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,” says Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine League of Conservation Voters, which among other things, tracks Maine’s political leaders’s voting records on environmental issues.
Drouin says her organization welcomed Gov. LePage’s recent remarks about protecting and enforcing regulations based in science. “But when you come out with a list like this, it flies in the face of that,” she says.
For starters, the six-page list calls for the Board of Environmental Protection to be abolished and replaced with a full-time administrative law judge system. It would require the Department of Environmental Protection to make decisions on permits within 30 days–down from a current six-month time frame; it would require the same agency to be neutral on the merits of a project and it would make Maine’s statutory and regulatory standards conform with federal regulations, essentially rolling them back.
Pete Didisheim, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says there’s a reason that Maine has more stringent standards than the federal government’s.
“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,” he says. “The people of Maine have chosen to have stronger safeguards to protect what literally defines the state of Maine.”
Didisheim says many of the proposals are not based in science but rather on some sort of anti-environmental ideologial agenda. Shawn Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation characterizes the list of regulatory proposals as a “rush to the bottom.”
“I don’t know when the people of Maine voted for their environmental standards to be the same as standards would be in Virginia or Texas or Wyoming,” Mahoney says. “I look at some of rollbacks of statutes and regulations which received bipartisan support over the last 10 years and it just to me is—is stunning.”
One example that stands out for Beth Ahearne of the Maine League of Conservation Voters is a set of rules adopted with strong support in the Legislature for reducing allowable levels of sulfur dioxide, a major component in acid rain that also causes reduced visibility. High concentrations can cause health problems for people with asthma, especially children. The LePage administration wants to relax, and possibly eliminate, the new law.
Ahearne says that would be a huge mistake. “That was bipartisan. We worked closely with the paper industry to forge a compromise on that that everyone was happy with, was pleased with,” she says. “And there was lots of negotiation that had a unanimous report out of committee and had a unanimous vote out of the Senate. This was not a Democratic bill.”
Dana Connors, president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, says the proposals reflect what he’s been hearing from the business community for quite some time. And he says he’s pleased that Gov. LePage appears to be following up on a campaign promise to make Maine more business friendly with a regulatory climate that is more efficient and predictable.
“And the fact that he has acted this quickly, it’s clear he’s recognized that as an impediment and he’s followed true to his word. I applaud him for that. I think it’s great,” Connors says.
Also included on the list is a proposal to require zoning for development in at least 30 percent of Maine’s unorganized territories. That would come to three million acres under the jurisdiction of the Land Use Regulation Commission, which at least one lawmaker has proposed to abolish.
And the governor would potentially eliminate a newly-adopted rule limiting the use of bisphenol A, as well as Maine’s first-in-the-nation electronic waste recycling program, which other states have moved to adopt. The list’s authors state that they want assurances “that manufacturers do not have to pay to recycle their consumer products.” Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for the governor, says the list is only a blueprint.
“This is really our report back from the business community,” he says. “It’s not statutory language yet. It’s not a final product. The Legislature will be working on its hearings, and the governor’s office will be working with them on the proposals they come up with as well, so there’s still a lot of work left to be done.”
Environmentalists say they worry that even if many of the governor’s proposals are adopted, there’s no guarantee that relaxing environmental standards and regulations will boost the economy or create more jobs. Instead, they say it could produce the opposite effect by cheapening Maine’s much-loved brand as a clean and healthy place to visit, work and live.