January 21, 2011
Environmental Regulations on Maine Legislature's Front Burner
With all the focus in the Republican-dominated Legislature this year on environmental regulations and the possible rollback of those that are perceived to deter job growth, environmentalists and lawmakers are gearing up for a lively session. Dozens of environmental bills are up for consideration, including repeal of Maine's bottle bill, a moratorium on expedited wind permitting and relaxation of shoreland zoning and protection of vernal pools.
This week Gov. Paul LePage made headlines when he suggested Maine's regulations protecting vernal pools from development should be relaxed. Vernal pools are small, fish-free bodies of water that are dry for part of the year and fill up with snowmelt long enough to provide a breeding ground for frogs and toads--the food source for forest creatures such as weasels, skunks and even bear and moose. But in just about every one of the governor's listening sessions on regulations, Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton says vernal pool protections have been raised as an example of overly-burdensome regulations. As chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, he's expecting about ten bills on the subject to be brought forward, either to his committee or to a newly established committee on regulatory reform known as LD 1. "The leadership may, in fact, decide that the best place to hear the vernal pool legislation questions will be in front of the LD 1 committee," Saviello says. "So if they do that, they would sweep them out of my committee and put them in front of LD 1." Jen Gray, a staff attorney with Maine Audubon, says environmental groups such as hers are concerned about vernal pool protections coming under fire from the governor and others. She's hoping to meet with the governor's nominee to head the Department of Environmental Protection to explain the importance of vernal pools, not all of which are regulated or prohibit development. "We're hoping to have the opportunity to walk through how the vernal pool legislation came to be and why the rules were developed the way they were and how very few project have actually been impacted by vernal pool protections," Gray says. Also expected to come before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee are several bills dealing with bottle redemption, a law in place in Maine since 1978 intended to reduce roadside litter and solid waste by offering incentives to recycle. One bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Thomas Martin of Benton proposes to repeal the bottle redemption law, although Martin says he will likely support other related legislation instead. "There are some similar bills out there so I put one in not knowing there was another bill out there," he says. "And there are several that I will probably let this one lapse." Martin says he thinks Mainers are environmentally responsible enough not to need the bottle deposit to encourage them to recycle. Short of repealing the entire program, he says he supports a proposal to exempt wine bottles from the redemption law. That bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Stacey Fitts of Pittsfield. "First off, they're very bulky," Fitts says. "It's one of the only glass, large returnables that are still in the system. And wine bottles come from a lot of different places, and oftentimes they don't have deposits on them." In other words, they may be coming from out of state, where a deposit was never paid on them in the first place, and Fitts says that winds up costing redemption centers here in Maine money when they get returned. More than half a dozen bills dealing with relaxation of Maine's shoreland zoning regulations are also being proposed. This week during an environmental roundtable with the governor, representatives from Maine's fishing industry urged the governor not to weaken regulations dealing with water quality. Patrice McCarron is the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. She says consumers, who bought 100-million pounds of Maine lobster last year, are depending on them. "They know that it's harvested from the pristine waters of the Gulf of Maine and we need to make sure that the rules that protect our waters remain in place," she says. "You don't have to look far to see what happens to lobsters when water quality is poor. The southern New England lobster industry has grappled with disease, die-offs and, more recently, a complete resource collapse." Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clamming Association, says excellent water quality is also critical to his industry, which he says is worth about $40 million to Maine's economy and supports 2,000 wild clammers. "Excellent water quality starts in the lakes, ponds and streams hundreds of miles inland and ends at the coast," he says. "We are concerned about threats to water quality and our industry if the state somehow loses sight of what we have gained in the last decade through new legislation that has helped to clean up and improve the water quality in our coastal waters." In addition to water quality, windpower development is also going to be scrutinized by lawmakers this session. There are no fewer than a dozen wind-related bills being proposed, including several sponsored by Republican Rep. Larry Dunphy of Emden. One of his bills would put a moratorium on the expedited wind permitting process. Another would create a code of conduct for individuals involved in large scale energy development and yet another would protect citizens' property values. "You put in a 300- or 400-foot tower or a number of these 300- or 400-foot towers and flashing lights and humming noises and that sort of thing and is that gonna decrease the property value? It would decrease my interest in buying property in that area," Dunphy says. With all of the proposed legislation, it is possible that similar bills may be merged. In the meantime, environmental groups say they will be watching to make sure environmental regulations that protect and define the Maine brand are not completely eroded.