Lawmakers mostly stand up against environmental assault

‘Holding the line’
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 23, 2012

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Republican state Senator Thomas Saviello, at one point widely considered a foe of Maine's environment, may have just saved it. At the least, he was a leader in saving a good part of it.

Saviello and a few other Republican lawmakers, dubbed "moderates," joined with — it almost goes without saying — a good number of Democrats to make up a surprising environmentalist majority in the 125th Legislature, which recently ended regular business.

Surprising because when Republican Governor Paul LePage swept into office almost a year and a half ago shoulder-to-shoulder with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, "out-of-state corporate interests" saw their opportunity to gut the environmental laws, says Peter Didisheim, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) chief lobbyist.

These corporations and many in-state business interests rushed to Augusta with scores of proposals ranging from eviscerating the bottle-return and shoreland-zoning laws to reversing the state's commitment to lessen toxic chemicals in the marketplace.

In the Legislature's first session, environmentalists and their legislative allies, armed with an NRCM poll showing 9 out of 10 Mainers believe environmental protection should be a priority, saw their first victories, defeating or postponing for consideration most of the environmental rollbacks.

This year's session, too, "ended much better than we thought it would," Didisheim says. The "worst threats" were defeated — such as a measure to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), which Didisheim believes would have meant "the end of the North Woods as we know it."

As "mainstream business leaders," Didisheim says, turned against many Republican proposals, so did some key Republican legislators. Although a legislative majority wound up supporting the environmental laws, the numbers were "very close," he adds.

The moderates didn't stop some things, such as a weakening of the mining laws meant to benefit a Canadian corporation. Still, they made the difference on several big environmental issues, with Saviello, from Wilton, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, leading the way.

For Saviello, it was rehabilitation. Seven years ago, as an independent state rep, he allegedly had improper dealings with Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) commissioner Dawn Gallagher over Androscoggin River water-pollution regulations affecting International Paper's big mill in Jay.

He was then both the mill's environmental manager and a member of the Natural Resources Committee. The scandal saw Gallagher resigning and Saviello relinquishing his committee seat.

When the GOP gained power and he became committee chairman, Saviello says he knew environmental groups distrusted him: "It was like, 'You got to watch him.'" But now, he says, the environmentalists may have concluded, "He wasn't as bad as we thought he was going to be."

Indeed, Didisheim says Saviello has redeemed himself. He was "a leader on environmental issues the past two years," adding that he's a hard worker interested in facts, not anecdotes.

Saviello's clout is reinforced by his decades studying and working on environmental issues. Now retired, he has a PhD from the University of Maine in forest resources.

LURC KEPT INTACT

Even though the issue didn't come before his committee, behind the scenes Saviello was active in negotiations over the proposal to abolish LURC, which would have given the commission's power to regulate development in the 10 million acres of the North Woods to the county governments.

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  Topics: News Features , Natural Resources Council of Maine, Paul Lepage, Thomas Saviello,  More more >
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