AUGUSTA, Maine — It seemed like an issue upon which everyone could agree: protecting children from harmful chemicals in the products they use every day.
Yet less than three years after the “Kid-Safe Products Act” passed the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, the law has re-emerged as a political issue and a potential flash point in the coming debate over Gov. Paul LePage’s regulatory reform agenda.
Environmental and public health groups accuse LePage of putting the interests of chemical companies and toy manufacturers ahead of children by targeting a proposed ban on the use of bisphenol-A, or BPA, in children’s sippy cups and other consumer products sold in Maine.
“It runs afoul of common sense and it exposes the governor’s hypocrisy,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. “He is supposed to be for the little guy, and here he is representing the big companies from out of state.”
The law’s defenders also point to this week’s appointment of Patricia Aho — a former lobbyist for the companies opposing the BPA rule — to the deputy commissioner post at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as proof of their claims.
But the LePage administration said the BPA rule is one example of Maine regulators needlessly adopting stricter standards than those imposed by other states or the federal government.
And while the BPA rule itself may not be scaring away investment, administration officials suggest it is part of the business-unfriendly regulatory approach that LePage argues may discourage business growth.
“It’s the whole picture; it’s everything,” said LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt. “And it’s the attitude.”
A battle has been raging for several years over BPA, a common chemical additive used in some hardened plastics, such as reusable food and beverage containers, as well as in liners in tin cans and on some paper.
Eight states plus Canada and the European Union have approved restrictions on BPA, which critics contend has been linked to learning disabilities, reproductive problems, cancer and obesity.
While many manufacturers have begun voluntarily replacing BPA with other chemicals, the chemical industry points to other studies that deemed the compound safe. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies have not recommended banning or restricting the chemical.
In 2008, the Maine Legislature passed the so-called Kid Safe Products Act, which establishes a process for the DEP to ban the sale in Maine of certain products containing chemicals that may pose a risk to children. The bill passed by unanimous vote in the Senate and 129-9 in the House.
The Maine Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously in December to ban BPA in any new, reusable food and beverage containers — including sippy cups and resealable water bottles — beginning next January. That action is subject to legislative approval.
But last month, LePage released his first package of regulatory reform proposals, including a recommended repeal of the BPA rule that has not yet been formally adopted. Instead, LePage says Maine should rely on federal standards.
“The agencies that are better equipped to deal with this and have the [resources] are the federal agencies,” Demeritt said. The BPA rule, he added, “creates one more … regulatory regime that anyone who wants to invest in Maine has to deal with.”
Demeritt said the governor’s proposal is a direct response to a request from the Maine Grocers Association, which in a December letter to LePage recommended that the rules be postponed until the FDA had completed a scientific assessment of the chemical.
But critics believe LePage was catering to others with his BPA proposal.
Matt Prindiville, the toxics project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said LePage appears to be taking his cues from out-of-state chemical companies. Prindiville has said there is no connection between the BPA rule and Maine jobs.
The most vocal opponents of the BPA rule have been the American Chemistry Council — a trade group for chemical makers — and the Toy Industry Association. The Maine Chamber of Commerce also opposed the rule.
Aho’s rumored and then eventual appointment as deputy commissioner at the DEP has only fueled the suspicions among the critics of LePage’s proposals to rewrite Maine’s environmental regulations. Aho, a well-known attorney and lobbyist, represented the American Chemistry Council.
Demeritt said Aho brings valuable experience in the regulatory environment to assist the new DEP commissioner, Darryl Brown, and the administration.
“We’ve made no secret about the idea that we need to find a balance” between business and the environment, Demeritt said. “Clearly, she knows the regulatory process.”
Belliveau said he hopes the new administration will live up to its pledge to base policy decisions on science and that lawmakers will follow through on their overwhelming support for the original law.
“I think we win on the merits, and I think we win on the politics,” he said.