Hundreds flock to public hearing on LePage environmental proposals

Pete Didishein, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, speaks during a press conference at the State House in Augusta on Feb. 14, 2011. The group opposes Gov. Paul LePage's proposal to rewrite many of Maine's environmental regulations.
Pete Didishein, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, speaks during a press conference at the State House in Augusta on Feb. 14, 2011. The group opposes Gov. Paul LePage's proposal to rewrite many of Maine's environmental regulations.
Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 12:30 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 15, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Hundreds of people converged on the State House on Monday for a public hearing and rallies focused on Gov. Paul LePage’s controversial proposals to rewrite or reform Maine’s environmental regulations.

For nearly a month, public debate has been swirling over a draft list of regulatory changes released by the LePage administration. On Monday, lawmakers got their first look at some of the governor’s formal proposals, outlined in 48 pages of changes targeting the Department of Environmental Protection.

Underscoring the long and likely contentious road ahead for the committee, lawmakers heard more than nine hours of testimony from crowds that overflowed into two additional rooms.

More than 150 people at a separate State House rally called on the committee to reject more controversial aspects of LePage’s reform agenda, such as the governor’s opposition to a ban on the chemical bisphenol-A in reusable beverage containers.

“We can’t afford to open the door to the danger that would be done to our environment … by weakening or overturning legislation that has taken us decades to put in place,” said Suzanne Kelly, co-owner of House Revivers and Kelly Realty Management in Bangor.

Administration officials presented the Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform with the first batch of formal proposals just minutes before the committee opened its public hearing.

Those proposals include replacing the Board of Environmental Protection with a three-judge appellate board; conducting a fiscal and jobs analysis before adoption of new DEP rules; creation of a small-business ombudsman position within the department; tightening the window for the DEP to send out notification about a violation; and granting regulated entities a 21-day window to address self-discovered violations free of liability.

Newly confirmed DEP Commissioner Darryl Brown testified that the changes were intended to improve and streamline Maine’s permitting process and remove redundant regulations while still protecting the environment.

Pointing to a photograph behind the committee showing the lakes and mountains near Rangeley, Brown said the clean environment depicted in that photo “very clearly defines what Maine is and what we’re all about.”

“I pledge to this committee and all of my staff pledge to this committee … we will always work tirelessly to maintain that quality and protect that quality,” Brown said.

But several Democratic lawmakers expressed frustration with the fact that they had no time to read the 48-page proposal before Monday’s meeting, nor did any of the audience members.

“I’m afraid I’m at a loss because there is no way I can read it to ask questions about it,” said Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. “And these people, they’ve never seen it. How can they address specifics?”

Additionally, Monday’s 48-page proposal does not contain some of the most contentious contents of the draft regulatory reform package released last month. Those changes include repealing the proposed ban on BPA, rezoning 30 percent of the Unorganized Territory for development, and rewriting DEP rules on vernal pools and migratory shorebird habitat.

Brown said he believes those provisions will be put forward in later bills.

“I believe [the governor] is not backing away from these particular issues,” Brown said.

Their absence in the 48-page amendment did not stop people from criticizing the proposals during the public hearing and two rallies, however.

Mary Beth Luce, a mother of two from Sidney, said during a morning rally of concerned moms that banning BPA would have no impact on Maine jobs.

“It doesn’t make ethical or economic sense, and it certainly isn’t common sense, to think that we can drive economic development in Maine by exposing our kids to toxic chemicals,” Luce said.

The proposal’s critics also continued to question whether LePage’s opposition to a ban on BPA and other proposed changes came not from Maine businesses but from out-of-state corporations whose lobbyists now work for the administration or helped draft the reform package.

While critics of LePage’s reform proposals clearly outnumbered supporters on Monday, the committee did hear from a number of business owners with ideas on improving Maine’s regulatory climate.

John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, recommended easing some reporting requirements as well as adopting federal standards in the future rather than more stringent state standards.

Members of two landlord associations — the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association and the Capital Area Housing Association — asked the committee to revisit aspects of a bill passed last year that they said could force some landlords out of business.

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