Having grown up on the coast of Maine, I know firsthand that the state of Maine’s prosperous history and wealth of natural resources are intrinsically intertwined. Just like we cannot separate our heritage and the environment, we cannot separate our protection of the environment and the strength of our economy because when Maine’s environment prospers, our economy prospers.
I have had the distinct honor of serving the people of Maine at the Department of Environmental Protection for more than two years now, having joined the department in February 2011. DEP’s mission and our goals have not changed over the course of these years. It is to steward our natural resources, while ensuring a sustainable economy. Without one we will not have the other, and we won’t be Maine.
The work of our excellent staff, who are engineers, scientists, data managers and specialists, is important to highlight. This work includes acting on close to 4,000 permits and license applications each year; responding to nearly 3,000 oil and hazardous materials spills; launching a new lead-safe property search feature on the state’s housing website; training 2,096 contractors in the best practices for erosion control; and undertaking our daily protection of our water, air and land around us. This is but a snippet of the work our dedicated public servants do each day, so we all may continue to live, work and play in our great state.
Are we making positive impacts at DEP? Yes. We are providing timely responses on permits, creating a more cross-media focus and providing members of the public, non-profit and private sectors with education and compliance assistance, so they better understand how to meet the requirements of our complex laws and rules.
We are working to foster environmental literacy to all involved in environmental and natural resource work, whether it is contractors or code enforcement officers. This has meant tripling the number of assistance calls to our toll-free number, while still enforcing our laws and rules — including levying enforcement penalties of more than $850,000 in 2012 and more than $1.3 million in 2011.
I created a Sustainability Division at DEP — the first such state-run division in New England. I know that we need to take a more holistic approach to waste management, which works to mesh composting, beneficial reuse, recycling, product stewardship, priority chemicals and other pollution prevention and reduction programs in an overall comprehensive approach.
Positive impacts at DEP include focusing on not just new applications we receive but also working to reduce the backlog of pending applications, which one DEP Bureau has reduced by more than 90 percent.
We’ve taken a thorough review of some of the fees we assess. We were able to reduce one fee that was placed on the sales of home heating oil, gasoline or other products, thus putting more than $5 million back into Maine’s economy. At the same time, we finished our work on more than 150 long-term contamination sites. Those sites are clean and can now go back into productive use, thus spurring our economy forward and further protecting our environment.
We listened to and incorporated the concerns of many stakeholders from the environmental and business communities to reduce the red tape to clean up hazardous properties. The governor recently signed a law that helps working waterfronts so that removal of trees and shrubs can take place if necessary to clean up contamination in working waterfront districts. The law recognizes the importance of Maine’s working waterfront heritage and the need to protect vital natural resources.
We created a permitting process to help farmers build “set-aside” ponds, which help them with their irrigation needs while protecting rivers and streams.
Allowing lobstermen to keep their traps on docks was a practical change to Maine’s law that balances the environment with the requests of the commercial industry that our coast is famous for.
Perhaps most importantly, I recognize that the public has a right to be part of the difficult and complex questions surrounding environmental concerns. The department values public input, and we are listening to our stakeholders more than ever before. We held the first public adjudicatory hearing about the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill to ensure its neighbors’ concerns would be taken into consideration during the processing of a landfill license application.
We have instituted a new policy that required at least two public meetings on any wind permit application to increase stakeholder engagement and to take into account all public comments, both as the department begins to process a permit application and after the public has had an opportunity to review the technical information provided.
So, yes, we do have a different focus at DEP. But the heart of our work continues to be and will continue to be a steward of our environment, while we build a vibrant economy in Maine. For the Portland Press Herald to ignore the body of work we undertake on a daily basis does a disservice to the staff, who have my utmost respect.
Whether through fishing, farming, forestry or outdoor recreation, our economy is identified with the health and prosperity of our environment and natural resources, and the staff at DEP and I work hard to protect those every day.
Patricia Aho is commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.