By Bonnie Washuk, Staff Writer
AUGUSTA – Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection violated Maine’s Freedom of Access law while negotiating with a Rumford paper mill about Androscoggin River pollution limits, Attorney General Steve Rowe said Friday.
While DEP did break the law that protects the public’s right to know what government is up to, it did not do so willfully. Therefore, Rowe said no penalty will be assessed.
DEP staff were not aware they violated the law when they went along with New Page’s request to let the mill keep the documents, the attorney general’s report said. DEP “should have exercised greater care,” Rowe said.
Gov. John Baldacci responded Friday by announcing he’s calling for further training of state employees in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
“It’s unfortunate that DEP made this mistake,” Baldacci said in a prepared statement. “We want to do everything possible to make sure that we’re completely transparent and there is access to every document that needs to be furnished.”>/p>
Last spring, DEP was negotiating with two Androscoggin River paper mills, International Paper in Jay and NewPage in Rumford, about environmental regulations that went beyond a five-year permit.
The attorney general found no violations with the IP agreement, but said in his report that DEP should not have granted NewPage’s request to prepare and keep all drafts of the agreement, and to keep all notes and documents.
“DEP staff member Andy Fisk agreed to their request,” the report read. DEP staffer “Jim Dusch recalled being told by Fisk later . . . that the only way Rumford would agree to go through the process was if they were able to keep control of all the documents.”>/p>
Once DEP worked with the documents, they legally became public records and should not have been out of state possession, the Rowe’s report concluded. By failing to retain those records, the DEP precluded the opportunity for public inspection. “That action, in our view, was in violation of FOAA.”>/p>
NewPage spokesman Tony Lyons said the mill would not have asked to keep the documents if it knew that violated the law. The mill assumed DEP “understood what its obligation was,” Lyons said.
After complaints that the law may have been violated, then-DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher voided the so-called side agreements.
Critics praise state action
Violating the access law is one of several missteps the department has made recently, according to environmentalists who have complained the Androscoggin River is not getting the protection it deserves.
A spokesman for one of five groups that complained to the attorney general said he was satisfied with the conclusion and recent DEP changes.
“The AG’s report confirms what we thought was a clear violation,” Steve Hinchman, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, said Friday. Environmentalists are not looking for anyone to be punished. “What we want is a clean river.”>/p>
The state reopening the just-issued five-year permits in November, new leadership in DEP after Commissioner Dawn Gallagher stepped down on Dec. 22, and the attorney general’s conclusion Friday, “shows the state is finally coming to grips with disarray and dysfunction at DEP,” Hinchman said.
Other groups that complained about FOAA violations were the Androscoggin River Alliance, Maine Rivers, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.
Judy Meyer, daytime managing editor of the Sun Journal and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, praised Baldacci’s promise for more state employee training. It’s needed, she said.
In very few instances are violations deliberate, Meyer said. “We found, and continue to find, that most of the public-access violations are because government employees just don’t have the training they need to follow the law.”>/p>