Panel rejects limit on environmental prosecutions

By Steve Mistler, Sun Journal
Posted April 05, 2011, at 10:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill backed by Gov. Paul LePage to create a six-year statute of limitations to enforce environmental violations faces an uphill climb after a second decisive committee vote opposing the measure.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 8-1 against the bill sponsored by Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland. The panel’s bipartisan decision mirrored a previous vote in March as a majority of Republicans and Democrats worried the measure would make it difficult for Department of Environmental Protection to enforce pollution violations.

Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, the chairman of the committee, introduced an amended version Tuesday in hope of convincing the panel to endorse the bill.

Hastings said a statute of limitations was necessary to prevent unnecessary crackdowns by the DEP. Hastings acknowledged the bill wasn’t airtight and that some violators could exploit it, but, he said, “That’s a pretty rare thing.”

The LePage administration originally had included a similar measure in its regulatory reform package.

But Republicans and Democrats said ambiguity in the bill could be a problem for the DEP and costly for taxpayers. Lawmakers argued that changing the law could create the need for more legal action for the state if violators stalled while hoping to exhaust the six-year enforcement limit.

During a public hearing in March, John Glowa, a DEP employee testifying as a private citizen, said the bill took away the agency’s leverage to force violators to settle disputes administratively, rather than through the court system.

Glowa said the department could be forced to take enforcement action sooner than it should to pre-empt the statute of limitations provision.

Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, argued that a violation that slipped through the cracks would shift cleanup costs and responsibilities from the violator to taxpayers.

Under the bill, the six-year statute of limitations would have kicked in after a violation was discovered.

Rep. Bradley Moulton, R-York, worried the proposed change would “open up a gamut of challenges.”

Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, said she didn’t understand the need for the change. Maloney said she hadn’t heard of a single business coming forward to say current law was a problem.

“Before I pass a bill, I like to know that we’re fixing a problem,” Maloney said. “I don’t see why we need to make a change.”

Similar proposals have come before the Legislature twice in the past five years. The most recent came in 2007 and led to the state’s current 10-year statute of limitations law on certain violations for air emissions and water quality.

On Tuesday, four Republicans and four Democrats opposed Snowe-Mello’s proposal.

The vote will go to the Senate as a divided report, meaning the chamber can’t pass or oppose the measure without a floor debate.

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http://bangordailynews.com/2011/04/05/politics/panel-rejects-limit-on-environmental-prosecutions/ printed on July 22, 2014