Agency: Lawmakers tried to shape DEP
One of Maine’s leading environmental advocacy groups is accusing two state lawmakers of abusing their political positions to influence staffing and enforcement decisions within the Department of Environmental Protection.
The two targeted lawmakers, Wilton independent Rep. Thomas Saviello and Robert Daigle, a Republican of Arundel, fiercely denied any wrongdoing and countered that the leaders of the Natural Resources Council of Maine are trying to silence the voices of knowledgeable legislators with whom they disagree.
In a stinging report released Tuesday, the Natural Resources Council said it has discovered evidence in DEP documents suggesting that Saviello and Daigle attempted to influence the restructuring of two pollution-control programs as well as staffing in the department.
The group also alleges that Saviello, who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee with Daigle, may have used his political connections to convince DEP officials to let International Paper slide on several code violations. Saviello is environmental manager at the International Paper plant where the violations were found.
“We believe this is a glaring conflict of interest with International Paper’s environmental manager sitting on the Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the environmental laws that regulate IP,” Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the environmental group, said Tuesday.
The group is calling for an investigation into its findings.
“DEP’s responsibility to protect public health and the environment must not be compromised by political influence,” the group’s executive director, Brownie Carson, said in a statement.
Both men acknowledged that they talked with DEP officials about plans to reorganize the agency’s pollution prevention and hazardous waste enforcement operations.
Department officials proposed the reorganization as a way to improve funding and integrate the programs. Natural Resources Council members regard the move as weakening enforcement.
But Daigle and Saviello said they were only offering the perspective of their constituents as well their own knowledge of the issues garnered from years in the field.
As citizen legislators, lawmakers are expected to bring their personal experience – whether in teaching or law or industry – to Augusta and to use that to help colleagues review laws, Daigle said. Both men can offer valuable insight that may run counter to the view of Carson’s group, he said.
“The correct way I wish he [Carson] would respond to combat my intellectual arguments is with a better intellectual argument of his own,” Daigle said. “Instead, he is throwing mud.”>/p>
The group accuses Saviello of first trying to thwart a surprise inspection of an International Paper plant in October 2003 and then getting DEP to drop action against the company.
Saviello said he initially questioned whether DEP inspectors should show up unannounced because the company participates in a federal pollution control program that bars spot inspections. He later learned that the federal agreement does not apply to the DEP.
“I never stopped them. I never tried to stop them,” he said.
The Wilton independent said he did not know why DEP did not take action against the company but that he was not involved in the decision.
House Speaker John Richardson, a Brunswick Democrat, said the report merits further study but added that the group’s concerns are only allegations at this point.
“I want to hear from the legislators,” Richardson said. “I don’t want to predetermine the outcome and I certainly don’t want partisanship to influence the outcome.”>/p>
DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher said legislators set the policy and the department carries it out. But she said the department would not do anything to weaken regulations or enforcement.