Environment should be a LePage priority

Posted Jan. 04, 2011, at 6:43 p.m.

The election of Paul LePage was a vote for change — change on many levels. How Maine balances economic growth against the equally important need to protect our environment should be a priority on Gov.-elect LePage’s “to-do” list.

Earlier this year, a survey of more than 1,000 business leaders in Maine by the Maine Development Foundation underscored that uneasy relationship when it found that business leaders named state regulations as one of the leading factors restricting business growth, yet listed the state’s recreational resources and natural features as a positive force for economic growth.

With a new administration and a new year, we need to address the question of how to balance environmental protection against the need for economic growth. Reforming the Department of Environmental Protection shouldn’t become “open season” on Maine’s environment, but neither should environmental regulation be the death knell for doing business in Maine. Deserved or not, state environmental regulators are viewed as punishing companies before eventually trying to mediate a solution.

A case in point: The former HoltraChem manufacturing plant in Orrington had been under state and federal environmental regulatory oversight when it was shut down 10 years ago. When the former owners abandoned the site, we, in Orrington, lost our largest employer and biggest taxpayer and inherited a partially contaminated site in lieu of back taxes.

What we really needed was a collaborative process among state environmental officials and the company that took responsibility for that cleanup. What we got instead was an unnecessarily long political process, endless litigation and a site that is still not close to being resolved.

There are two sides to every story, but among the undisputed facts are that we have a company in Mallinckrodt that has taken responsibility for the cleanup while other past owners dissolved and ran. Mallinckrodt has now spent some $40 million on site cleanup and is committed to a $95 million cleanup plan that was adopted by the town. Back in 2005, a cleanup plan appeared imminent, but that plan collapsed as the impending governor’s election loomed.

After the DEP ordered a more unreasonably intensive and possibly politically motivated cleanup plan in 2008, Mallinckrodt appealed to the Board of Environmental Protection. The BEP is a government entity that rarely disagrees with the DEP.

Mallinckrodt did succeed in having much of the DEP order set aside, but that needless order caused an additional two-year delay and further frustrated our community that could be on that site today redeveloping an incredible 200-plus-acre asset along the Penobscot River, thereby adding to our tax base, providing jobs and securing valuable natural resources for generations.

There is no one who doesn’t want final resolution for this site, and the sooner the better for everyone concerned. The town and Mallinckrodt now have an agreement in place that will assist the town’s economic development efforts while assuring long-term environmental protection for the site after the cleanup work has been completed.

It is this community’s hope that Gov.-elect LePage’s new DEP commissioner will be someone who is skilled in conflict resolution, decision making and finding that balance between economic growth and protecting natural resources. We have a community and a company ready to start the final phase of this remediation, but what we are still lacking is a collaborative effort that puts the community first and relies on common sense to get the job done.

Sue Pate is an Orrington resident and a member of the Orrington Board of Selectmen’s Economic Advisory Committee.

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