Pollution Watch

Dredging the Department of Environmental Protection
By SARA DONNELLY  |  January 9, 2006

Some of Maine’s environmental activists hope the recent resignation of beleaguered Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Dawn Gallagher will mean the DEP will stand up more to industry polluters (see "Don’t Expect Protection," by Alex Irvine, July 16, 2004). But a former department manager says the alleged negotiations with industry interests that prompted Gallagher’s resignation are in fact privately encouraged by the governor.

Beleaguered Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Dawn Gallagher."The commissioner fell on her sword for the governor, but all of these activities are coming out of the governor’s office," says David Van Wie, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality from 1999-2003 under former Governor Angus King and Baldacci.

"Immediately upon Baldacci taking office it became a much more political, lobbiest-driven management style," says Van Wie. "Once Baldacci came in and the paper industry lobbyists got into the governor’s office, suddenly we [at the DEP] were being told what to do when the governor’s office had no idea what the [researchers at] the DEP had done."

Crystal Canney, director of communications for the governor, notes that Van Wie was a political appointee under King who resigned within a few months of Baldacci taking office, implying a bias on Van Wie's part.

"Governor Baldacci has always been and will always be a strong supported of protecting the environment to ensure that the air the children breathe and the water that they drink is clean and safe," she says in response to Van Wie’s allegations.

Gubernatorial pressure or no, local environmental activists hope a change-up at the DEP will make the department more responsive to their interests.

"I think the real issue isn’t who’s at the head of this agency, it’s what this administration’s policies are," says Naomi Schalit, executive director of Maine Rivers. "What we need to see is that the governor has committed to not only having this agency run with integrity and transparency but also that he is committed to the environment on all levels."

Gallagher resigned December 22 amid allegations she offered to ignore polluting perpetrated by International Paper if a state representative who works as a manager at the company would support legislation to clean up the Androscoggin River. A report released by the Attorney General’s Office on December 30 found that the DEP, under Gallagher, had also inadvertently disregarded the state's Freedom of Access Act by giving Rumford Paper Co. exclusive possession of notes taken during a meeting in 2005 about Gulf Island Pond water quality regulations. The report states that the department "attempted to put documents that had become public records beyond the reach of a request for those records."

The Attorney General wrote that the staff did not "fully understand" the state's law and encouraged more training. The governor released a statement later that day calling for "wider training" on FOAA requests.

A current DEP employee who has worked in the department for more than 20 years says morale at the DEP is "generally not good," both because of Gallagher’s erratic leadership and the slimming of the department’s budget.

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  Topics: This Just In , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Nature and the Environment,  More more >
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