At least we can now get over any talk about “streamlining regulations.” Gov. Paul LePage issued his recommendations for altering state environmental laws to the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform late Monday afternoon. Veteran observer/lobbyist George Smith called the proposals “stunning,” and it’s hard to argue.
Taken literally, the plan amounts to a huge rollback of environmental legislation passed over the past three decades. According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the plan would repeal or substantially weaken 18 environmental laws, including several that received unanimous support from the Legislature. It would also gut land-use controls over the vast unorganized territories — the Maine woods — which at 10.4 million acres is nearly half the state’s land area.
It’s hard to say just where this list came from. As it happened, LePage’s nominee for commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, Darryl Brown, was testifying the day after the plan was released. Several legislators on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee said they were relieved when Brown said he wasn’t involved in preparing the list.
But if the prospective DEP commissioner didn’t know about LePage’s plan to roll back environmental rules almost across the board, that’s almost as troubling as if he did know. The governor told environmental groups only last week that “I believe in real, strong environmental laws,” but he might want to specify which ones. There are plenty he obviously doesn’t support.
To be sure, some items could arguably be considered streamlining to make permitting more consistent and business-friendly, LePage’s announced objective.
It proposes, for instance, to relocate functions of other state departments to the DEP, including above-ground storage tanks (now with the state fire marshal), site law wildlife impact (Inland Fisheries and Wildlife) and drinking water systems (Health and Human Services.) Another could be added: The Department of Health and Human Services also regulates septic systems, in large part because it’s been doing so since before DEP was created.
But that’s not the tenor of most proposals. Many legislators, including Republicans, who voted for bills to ban suspected cancer-causing chemicals in wood, automobiles and baby cups will wonder why these laws need scuttling.
Perhaps the most staggering proposal is the decimation of the Land Use Regulatory Commission, which since 1970 has overseen development in the unorganized territory — all of Maine’s land without local government.
LURC is a small and, most would say, understaffed agency with just 25 employees. It does take a long time for homeowners to get building permits, but that’s primarily because there are too few staff members for the workload. It’s clear LePage won’t increase LURC’s staff, so instead he wants to eliminate much of its mission.
Under his plan, LURC would have to open to unfettered development 30 percent of this land base. That’s 3 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut, and about one-seventh of Maine. It would also repeal the “adjacency” rule, which means that new development should take place primarily near existing development. To most Mainers, this is common sense. To LePage, it’s a millstone around commercial development.
The administration plans many more regulatory proposals to the select committee, but perhaps it should slow down and better define what it’s trying to do. Taking excessive burdens off business development is one thing; wholesale removal of environmental laws quite another.
Beneath the rhetoric lies a fundamental disagreement about the nature of Maine, and what makes it attractive both to those who live here and those who might.
The North Woods — LURC’s jurisdiction — means many different things. To hikers and campers, it’s the last remaining wilderness in the Northeast. To forest products companies, it’s a huge and vital source of wood fiber, the reason why Maine still has a vigorous forest economy while other states are losing theirs. To the world, places like northern Maine are vital repositories of medicinal plants, and a buffer against global warming.
LePage assumes Maine is just like any other state … that its environmental rules should be exactly the same as federal rules — even when those rules are approved by lawmakers from states with far less concern for the environment, and fewer valuable natural resources than Maine.
Maine passed a law that reduces sulfur content of commercial heating oil to improve visibility in Acadia National Park, Maine’s biggest visitor attraction. State law would clear the air by 2018. LePage believes the federal deadline of 2068 is better. Perhaps our grandchildren will see some benefit.
In a word, LePage assumes business will thrive if we throw open our landscape to anyone who wants to build anything.
He’s selling Maine short.