The state’s leading environmental health organization has charged the pro-business administration of Gov. Paul LePage with undermining key public health protections, including the pending ban against certain consumer products containing the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA.
In a letter hand-delivered on Monday to the office of Attorney General William Schneider, Executive Director Michael Belliveau of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center formally petitioned Schneider to take enforcement action against LePage and the Department of Environmental Protection, charging a failure to comply with two recent reporting deadlines.
Belliveau said LePage has exhibited “a pattern of hostility” against the Kids-Safe Products Act, which calls for the BPA ban, and other environmental health protections.
“Given that the Governor’s policies have been in repeated conflict with Maine’s toxic chemical safety programs, we ask that you take immediate action to enforce Maine law and bring the Executive Branch into compliance,” Belliveau wrote in his complaint.
Exposure to BPA is linked in scientific studies with a number of serious health problems including reproductive disorders, obesity and some forms of cancer. In a widely publicized comment last February, LePage, who sought unsuccessfully to roll back existing laws affecting the sale of children’s products that contain BPA, said concerns about the chemical are overblown and quipped that “the worst case is that some women may have little beards” if they are exposed.
LePage’s office on Monday afternoon denied any deliberate effort to slow DEP compliance.
“There has been no directive from the Governor to steer away from this,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren said the agency is committed to implementing the Maine law and suggested that Belliveau’s organization is engaging in “armchair quarterbacking.”
DePoy-Warren said Monday that former DEP Acting Commissioner Jim Brooks extended the original July 5 deadline for manufacturers of toys, tableware and other products marketed for infants and children to submit plans for complying with Maine’s new BPA law. The new deadline is Oct. 3, she said, explaining that the department needed more time to develop an online reporting system. Since manufacturers have until January 2012 to change their products, the new deadline poses no threat to enforcement of the law or to the public health, she said.
The department did violate a July 1 deadline for releasing a list of up to 10 dangerous chemicals for future regulation in consumer products, DePoy-Warren acknowledged. DEP staff members are “working actively” on the list, she said, but have been hampered by the complexity of choosing from about 1,700 toxic chemicals on a list released last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Staff are calculating the pervasiveness of the chemicals in products sold in Maine as well as their relative toxicity and the availability of “reasonable alternatives” in the manufacturing process, she said.
“We do have a tentative list, but it is not ready to be publicly released,” she said.
In an earlier letter dated June 22, Belliveau charged LePage with deliberately sabotaging Maine environmental laws by eliminating and reassigning DEP staff members who had been assigned to the department’s Safer Chemicals Program. DePoy-Warren said she could not discuss specific staffing assignments, but that the program has been moved under the direct supervision of a bureau director, a reflection of its importance to the administration.
DePoy-Warren said the DEP is “doing a lot with a limited number of staff,” and said Beilliveau’s attacks are “much to-do about nothing” from “an external organization trying to tell us how to run the department.”
Special Assistant Brenda Kielty of the Attorney General’s Office said Schneider would have no comment on Belliveau’s letter until he had reviewed the complaint fully.
Belliveau said in a phone interview Monday afternoon that if the AG’s office does not respond in a satisfactory way to his demand for enforcement, the Environmental Health Strategy Center and other public health groups are prepared to pursue legal action against the state.
Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said the ban on certain consumer products containing the chemical BPA goes into effect Jan. 1, 2012. Also, the extension of a reporting deadline to Oct. 3 was set by former Acting Commissioner Jim Brooks and not by the Maine Legislature.