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DEP Efforts to Review Product Takeback Program Under Scrutiny
02/02/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

When the Maine Department of Environmental Protection recently suggested review and possible phasing out of Maine's first-in-the-nation product takeback programs it had meetings with industry but not with other stakeholders or input from key staff who manage the programs. That is one of the findings from a Freedom of Access request for emails, memos and other correspondence at the DEP over the past year.  Two industry insiders apparently felt so emboldened by the incoming Repubican administration that they also discussed trying to have a DEP staffer fired.

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The Thermostat Recycling Corporation, known as TRC, is a non-profit organization founded by Honeywell, General Electric and other members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association to ensure proper recovery of mercury thermostats.

About six years ago Maine passed the nation's first state law requiring manufacturers such as Honeywell and GE to develop a thermostat collection program, since mercury is so harmful to the environment and to human health. The law required manufacturers to pay a $5 dollar bounty for each thermostat.

But TRC has continually raised objections to the program, calling the fee "cumbersome" for manufacturers. So it was no surprise to Democratic Rep. Melissa Walsh Innes of Yarmouth that two industry representatives would talk about having one of the DEP administrators of the program fired just days after Republican Paul LePage was elected governor.

Innes was the chief sponsor of the product stewardship framework legislation and serves on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

"I think there's been bad relations between the mercury products people and the staff peopole at DEP over getting this program administered correctly," Innes says. "You know, it doesn't surprise me. They felt empowered once we had a changeover in the administration."

A transcript of a message left on DEP staffer Carole Cifrino's voicemail from Mark Tibbetts of TRC and Mark Kohorst of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association shows that the two tried to reach Cifrino to answer some of her questions on November 8, 2010 at 4:00 pm.

When Cifrino didn't pick up, they attempted to hang up but apparently failed. Cifrino's voicemail recorded Tibbetts saying: "Four o'clock. That's when she leaves. I know what to email Ann--I'm going ot get her fired." Kohorst responds: "Ok." And Tibbetts goes on to say: "Actually I'm going to let Larry get her fired."

Neither Tibbetts nor Kohorst responded to several calls from MPBN about the voice mail. Handwritten notes on the transcript suggest Ann is attorney Ann Robinson, who was in charge of Gov. LePage's transition team, and Larry is Larry Kast, general counsel for Honeywell.

"You know, I think it's worth investigating to see if any actions were taken by the DEP senior management to go forward with these comments made by the mercury products people," Innes says.

One month after the voicemail message, Tibbetts wrote a letter to Gov. LePage complaining about the DEP's demands on manufacturers, asking for relief from the mandatory bounty and for a full review of the program. A similar request for a review of the program also went to the DEP.

For his part, Ron Dyer, executive director of the DEP's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, and Cifrino's boss, says he has a high regard for his staff and has no plans to reassign them. But according to documents contained in the FOAA request, neither Cifrino nor the other program administrator for product takeback were asked for input in the 2012 report Dyer recently released calling for review of Maine's recycling and takeback programs and for their possible sunset.

"I did want to do a fresh look at this whole program," Dyer says. "It's been going on about 10 years. And that is the idea of the report, is a fresh look at it."

Dyer says DEP staff were more than welcome to submit written comments for the report, or to come and talk to him about any concerns.

But staff weren't the only ones left without input. Rep. Innes says a stakeholders group that included industry and public members, municipal representatives, environmental groups and academics essentially disbanded once the new administration took office. Instead, the FOAA documents requested separately by both MPBN and the Natural Resources Council of Maine show that industry had a series of meetings at the DEP over the course of the year. Pete Didisheim is with the NRCM.

"What we found actually confirmed our suspicion, and that is that over the 10-month period while the DEP was developing this report, senior DEP staff involved in drafting it met with very interested, out-of-state manufacturers, representatives and their lobbyists at least 10 times," Didisheim says. Didisheim says the DEP essentially had an open-door policy for industry and no one else.

Ron Dyer says there's a reason that TRC got its foot in the door. "I believe TRC's the only ones that actually made the effort to pick the phone up to call and come in, so I did sit down with them and we talked about a possible path forward," he says. "I want to increase recycling. We want to see increased recycling. TRC is key to that."

In an email to MPBN, a spokesman for the industry group says meetings with the DEP were limited to discussions about how to improve the program.

Rep. Innes says she would have liked the same opportunity. Just days before one meeting TRC had with the DEP in June, she wrote a letter to Acting DEP Commissioner Patty Aho asking about possible changes to the product stewardship program and asking for stakeholder meetings. In her response, Commissioner Aho says she agrees that product stewardship programs need robust stakeholder input. Innes says she's still waiting for stakeholder meetings to resume.

Editor's Note:  Ann Robinson is a member of MPBN's Board of Trustees.

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