AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee to head the Department of Environmental Protection faced tough questions Tuesday only days after the governor proposed a list of sweeping and controversial changes to Maine’s environmental and land use laws.
Darryl Brown, who runs a consulting firm that works with developers, received the endorsement of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday evening on a 9-4 vote.
It was the first split committee vote for a LePage nominee, reflecting growing tensions between Democrats, the environmental community and the Republican governor.
With LePage in the Blaine House and Republicans in control of the State House, Maine’s environmental regulations are getting increased scrutiny as the state’s new GOP leadership follows through on their pledge to improve the business climate.
Brown, of Livermore Falls, has spent roughly 40 years working with both businesses and regulators as the president of a consulting firm that provides soil surveys, engineering and planning to developers.
But on Tuesday, Democrats on the committee grilled the nominee on his attitudes toward environmental protection, stances on issues such as global warming and position on LePage’s policy proposals for the DEP.
Several committee members questioned whether Brown was doing enough to avoid perceptions of a conflict of interest due to his company’s extensive dealings with the DEP.
“I just felt the conflict of interest and perception thereof was insurmountable,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, in explaining his vote against the nominee.
Brown, who is president of Main-Land Development Consultants Inc., described himself as both a conservationist and an environmentalist who agrees with LePage’s past statements that a healthy environment is critical to Maine’s economy.
“He and I believe, however, that a clean and healthy environment can be achieved while encouraging a robust business climate,” Brown said.
If approved by the full Senate, Brown said his top priorities as DEP commissioner would be to create a more user-friendly environment for businesses as well as to cut in half the time to process permit applications. Additionally, Brown said he also would conduct a thorough review of all rules and regulations.
The nominee received strong support Tuesday from a long list of personal and professional acquaintances and business trade groups that predicted Brown’s scientific background, small-business experience and stint as a legislator made him an ideal candidate.
“He brings balance to a position that I think begs for it,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
In many ways, however, Brown’s nomination hearing was overshadowed by concerns among Democrats and environmental groups about LePage’s plans for the DEP.
LePage’s regulatory reform package released earlier this week includes: eliminating the Board of Environmental Protection and replacing it with an appellate board; rolling back Maine pollution standards and environmental laws to the federal level; repealing a recent decision prohibiting the sale of children’s products containing the controversial chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA; and zoning 30 percent of the Unorganized Territory for development.
In response to committee questions on LePage’s proposals, Brown said he was not involved in their development so he would want to study the reasons or science behind them.
“I would say most of what the governor has proposed are things that I do endorse and I would support,” Brown said.
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he hopes Brown would bring a science-based approach to the DEP and would reject “the myth that weakening Maine’s environment will strengthen our economy.”
Didisheim said he would have testified against Brown had he helped LePage create the regulatory reform package but instead was neutral on his nomination.
“We’re talking about laws that are successfully creating recycling jobs, reducing mercury pollution, protecting Maine people from increased air pollution and preserving the character of our communities,” Didisheim said. “We hope that Darryl Brown will not be party to that agenda.”
Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, officially testified neither for nor against Brown but expressed strong reservations about his nomination.
“While Mr. Brown is a soil scientists, he has served in the Legislature and has built a successful consulting business, there is nothing in his record to suggest that he is committed to protecting and improving the environment, which, of course, is the mission of the Department of Environmental Protection,” Figdor said.
But Brown said he does not intend to go to the DEP “with a big ax cutting programs, cutting positions.” Instead, Brown said he would approach the job with a willingness to listen and a strong respect for department staff and the work they do.
“I confess to you all that I have a lot to learn,” he said. “This is a big department.”