By Kevin Wack, Portland Press Herald Writer
Dawn Gallagher, Maine’s top environmental official, resigned Thursday amid criticism that her administration had become too cozy with the industries it’s charged with regulating.
Gov. John Baldacci, who appointed Gallagher to head the Department of Environmental Protection shortly after he was elected in 2002, announced her resignation in a two-page statement. He linked Gallagher’s departure to a controversy over the cleanup of the Androscoggin River, which spurred questions about whether the department violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
“Commission- er Gallagher, who has been a strong leader at DEP, agrees with me that recent departmental decisions could have been handled differently. These recent departmental decisions created adverse public reaction. This does not reflect my administration’s priority to always work for Maine people in the most accessible, consistent and open way possible,” Baldacci said.
In the statement, Baldacci said he intends to use Gallagher in another position in his administration. He named Deputy Commissioner David Littell as acting chief of the DEP.
Gallagher did not return a call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
Gallagher’s departure came while the Maine Attorney General’s Office is investigating whether the department’s private, undocumented talks with Rumford Paper Co. violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act. The AG’s office is expected to make an announcement soon.
Environmentalists say the closed-door negotiations were only one example of the department’s close relationship with polluting businesses.
They also cite a proposed reorganization at the DEP that some fear would weaken its hazardous-waste enforcement efforts. And there have been accusations, which Gallagher denied, that she had offered to drop enforcement action over an International Paper hazardous-waste violation in exchange for help with legislation from a state lawmaker who also works for the mill.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group that has been among Gallagher’s toughest critics, welcomed the resignation.
“We think new leadership has been necessary at DEP for awhile,” said Pete Didisheim, the group’s director of advocacy. “We think she was leaning much too heavily and too easily toward industry’s point of view.”>/p>
He went on to say that Gallagher didn’t have the skills to lead an agency that enforces highly technical regulations, and said that criticism wasn’t confined to the environmental community.
David Sait, a 34-year DEP veteran who stepped down last summer, said there has been widespread dissatisfaction inside the department with the commissioner’s leadership.
“It was inconsistent, and what it indicated was that they clearly didn’t trust staff to do much of anything without having it scrutinized to the nth degree, even routine activities,” Sait said.
Two state legislators who work closely with the DEP were more supportive of Gallagher.
“I have to say I was surprised because the commissioner’s performance from my perspective has been quite strong,” said Rep. Ted Koffman, D-Bar Harbor, House chair of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Robert Daigle, R-Arundel, a member of the same committee, said he is disappointed to see Gallagher step down. Daigle, who is also an environmental compliance consultant to businesses, has faced recent criticism for his deep involvement in DEP affairs.
“I guess I’m not sure if the people who threw all these accusations in the last few weeks intended this to be the outcome,” Daigle said. “And I’m hopeful that they don’t see this as a victory, because nobody won.”>/p>
Before joining Baldacci’s Cabinet, Gallagher was a deputy commissioner, legislative liaison and legal adviser for the state Conservation Department for five years.
During her tenure at DEP, Gallagher did win praise from environmentalists for her work on limiting emissions that contribute to global warming. Maine and six other Northeast states announced plans this week to set up the nation’s first system to cut greenhouse gas pollution from power plants.
The governor’s statement Thursday indicated that Gallagher had been facing internal scrutiny for at least a few weeks, with Baldacci saying it had been his decision to reconsider a permit issued to International Paper and to ask Littell to lead the revamped process.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 282-8226 or at email@example.com