I plunged into this story by trying to find the answers to two questions:
First, why did the Legislature, by an overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats, pass LD 141? In an unprecedented move, the bill overruled the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP), the state’s environmental watchdog, and told it not to get too tough in regulating the arsenic, dioxin, lead, asbestos, and other poisons pouring from the smokestacks of paper companies and other biomass electricity generators.
These emissions occur when the companies burn construction and demolition debris (known as CDD), increasingly vast qualities of which are trucked into Maine from the rest of New England. The poisons in the wood debris come from remnants of plastic, metal, lead paint, and asbestos as well as from arsenic-treated wood. They go out the smokestacks and into our air in the form of ash and particulates. On May 2, Governor John Baldacci signed LD 141 into law.
Second, why, in a rare form of protest to the above legislative move, did Hillary Lister, a young woman from Athens, chain herself to the railing of the gallery of the House of Representatives on April 11 as other protesters shouted, showered leaflets on legislators, and caused the House to be evacuated? Lister was arrested for “obstructing government administration.” Her trial is May 17.
On the surface, Lister’s protest was odd. Democratic legislative leaders had alleged that a provision of LD 141 would prevent a controversial CDD-burning plant from being built in her hometown. The new law says no more than half of the wood burned in steam boilers can be CDD, while the proposed Athens plant's developers had wanted to burn entirely CDD.
The daily press ended its objective coverage of the issue on an upbeat note—how the new law “limits burning of debris” (Augusta Kennebec Journal headline, May 4). My research did not produce quite such upbeat results. To cut to the chase, I will give my interpretive, subjective version of the story—what you would hear if you asked me at a dinner party, “What’s the real story?” But then I will give my objective account—a compendium of quotations, like what the dailies often limit themselves to.
The subjective version
So what’s the real story?
For openers, you should understand that the Legislature is, psychologically, a conservative place. There are notable exceptions, but generally both Democratic and Republican legislators are conventional, cautious, ambitious people who have a strong inclination to respect money and power. And they are surrounded, literally wall-to-wall, by lobbyists who represent the moneyed and powerful interests of the state. Conventional, cautious, ambitious people often do not think for themselves about pieces of legislation; they tend to move in the direction of the sum of vectors on them. Many times I have had legislators tell me, unapologetically, that they voted a certain way because “I didn’t hear from the other side.”
That’s the background. In the foreground, some paper companies and Casella Waste Systems Inc. lobbied legislators to stop the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from being instructed by its board to be super-strict in regulating CDD in biomass boilers. Earlier this year, when the board had been presented with staff-written restrictions on CDD burning, some board members made noises about strengthening them significantly.