Group alleges industry influenced DEP’s mercury recycling report

Posted Feb. 08, 2012, at 8:43 p.m.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine is accusing Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials of allowing an industry group to have undue influence on a recent report that calls for a re-evaluation of hazardous waste recycling programs.

But a DEP spokeswoman said the department’s doors are open to all stakeholders. And she insisted that the department is committed to improving — not terminating — programs to recycle products containing mercury and other hazardous materials.

NRCM said that internal documents obtained from the DEP show that senior staff met 10 times during the past year with representatives of Thermostat Recycling Corp. to discuss Maine’s program that aims to keep old thermostats containing mercury from ending up in a landfill. Thermostat Recycling Corp. is a nonprofit formed by manufacturers of thermostats in order to recover the devices for disposal.

NRCM suggested that the industry’s fingerprints are visible on the DEP’s report — released in late December — recommending that the Legislature re-evaluate the state’s so-called “product stewardship” laws. Those laws require manufacturers to take back or help pay to recycle thermostats, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, televisions and other electronic devices containing mercury or other hazardous materials.

“Our review shows that senior DEP officials have maintained an open door policy for out-of-state manufacturers interested in undermining Maine’s product stewardship programs and a closed door policy to all other stakeholders — including interested lawmakers, internal DEP staff who manage the programs, municipalities and public interest organizations,” Abby King, NRCM’s product stewardship advocate, said in a statement.

But DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren said some of those meetings were to discuss other issues, including reports of potential fraud within the take-back programs and other environmental projects.

“Our door is always open,” DePoy-Warren said on Wednesday. “This organization happened to walk through it. They are partners in this recycling effort.”

NRCM filed a Freedom of Access request not long after the department released its latest report to the Legislature on the status of the product take-back programs. But rather than clarify the programs’ status, the report seems to have generated more tension — and confusion — about the future of the recycling efforts required by the department.

The department determined that the five existing product stewardship programs have removed slightly more than 400 pounds of mercury from the environment over the past decade but at a cost of $2.5 million — or more than $6,000 a pound. Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin that can cause serious health problems in humans, especially young children and pregnant women.

“Based on the conclusions drawn from this review, the department recommends re-evaluation of the way that these programs are managed and whether certain programs, as currently administered, are appropriate; taking into consideration relatively low recycle rates of product categories, accounting for innovations which have resulted in manufacturer process changes, and allowing the opportunity for private sector leaders to maintain management of program operations and outcomes,” reads the DEP’s report to the Legislature’s Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

The report goes on to say that the department plans to develop draft legislation in 2013 “aimed at sun-setting select product categories where appropriate.”

Environmental and health groups seized on such language to conclude that the DEP planned to propose that lawmakers terminate some programs. That prompted the DEP’s bureau director in charge of the product stewardship programs to issue a clarifying memo that while the department is recommending re-evaluation of the programs, “the ultimate goal of the department is to improve the effectiveness of the programs.”

But NRCM insisted this week that the documentation suggests that department staff who have handled the programs for years were not consulted during the review. Instead, the organization alleges that that DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho and other senior officials crafted the report based largely on industry feedback and without considering the benefits of reducing mercury pollution.

“We feel the report presents such a flawed and biased view of product stewardship that the DEP should be embarrassed to even have it on its website,” King said in an interview.

DePoy-Warren said that, to her knowledge, NRCM has never been denied a meeting with department staff.

“We are focused on moving these programs forward and improving the recycling rates,” she said. “So we feel this criticism is undeserved.”

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