By Bonnie Washuk, staff writer
AUGUSTA – Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Dawn Gallagher resigned Thursday amid questions about how the department is run.
The announcement was made by Gov. John Baldacci, who praised Gallagher as a valuable public servant but said he wanted a change.
“Commissioner Gallagher, who has been a strong leader at DEP for three years, agrees with me that recent departmental decisions could have been handled differently,” the governor said in a statement. “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.”>/p>
That’s why, Baldacci said, he felt it necessary last month to reopen a pollution permit just given to International Paper, which river advocates have described as weak.
Saying he wants to ensure public trust, Baldacci said he does not want any doubts to detract from work being done to protect Maine’s environment.
Efforts to reach Gallagher on Thursday were unsuccessful. In his statement, Baldacci said he plans to use “her skills and experience in another position with the administration.” He didn’t specify what that would be.
On Tuesday, she told the Sun Journal she would like to stay as commissioner. But “if it got to the point that I became the focus and we could no longer focus on protecting Maine’s environment,” she said, “I will not allow that.”>/p>
Environmentalists have described DEP of late as a department in chaos with morale problems. A number of recent DEP actions under Gallagher’s watch have proven controversial.
In early November, environmentalists complained DEP held “secret meetings” at a Rumford paper company to work out pollution agreements. That, they said, bypassed the public process and violated Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. After mounting criticism Gallagher junked those agreements with IP and NewPage. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is looking into whether the law was violated. As of Thursday, that was still pending, AG spokeswoman Jessica Maurer said.
On Nov. 30, DEP took the unusual step of reopening the permit issued to IP in September. New data prompted DEP to question whether the permit was too lenient.
On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Council of Maine released internal DEP documents questioning whether two legislators used their influence to soften DEP enforcement. One of those was Rep. Tom Saviello, I-Wilton, who works at IP and serves on the Natural Resources Committee. That committee has jurisdiction over environmental laws.
And on Wednesday, Gallagher denied allegations by Saviello that she offered a deal to him to drop hazardous waste enforcement against IP if Saviello agreed to pending Androscoggin River legislation. Saviello insisted Gallagher offered him that deal in January 2004. Gallagher disagreed. However a DEP staffer backed Saviello’s account, saying a directive came from the commissioner’s office to forego IP enforcement.
Naomi Schalit of the environmental group Maine Rivers said, “The governor is going to have to work hard now to restore the public’s faith in his administration’s environmental policies. Their recent turnaround on the Androscoggin River was a good sign, but as we now know, the chaos and staff demoralization at the DEP is a major problem.”>/p>
Saviello said Gallagher’s resignation is “good news for all of us to move on. When the team is struggling a little bit you have to make a change at the top.”>/p>
He said he’s looking forward to working with the new commissioner. The acting commissioner will be DEP Deputy Commissioner David Littell, Baldacci said.
Baldacci stressed Thursday that no special interests will interfere with Littell and his department as it works to protect the environment. “Anybody trying to put things through the legislature to upend the process he has undertaken, I’ve made it very clear I will veto that legislation and stop it in its tracks,” Baldacci said.