Capitol Notebook: Environmental battles bring investigation, accusations

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On the long list of targets for Gov. Paul LePage at his angry news conference last week was the Land for Maine’s Future Board, which he has trapped in one of the most bitter political fights of this legislative season.

The governor has refused to release bonds, already approved by voters, that would provide the money for purchases already in the LMF approval process that depend on the state funding. He is holding up the bonds in his effort to force legislators to use money from timber harvesting on Maine’s public lands to fund heating assistance for low-income Mainers.

At the news conference, LePage surprised reporters by saying he was “investigating” the work of the LMF board, potentially casting a shadow of wrongdoing on a board that he appoints, and which includes three of his department commissioners.

On Monday morning, the executive director of the LMF had heard nothing of such an investigation.

“I have not received any communication regarding an investigation at this point,” Sarah Demers said, adding that she has worked with the governor’s staff “up to this point” and will continue to do so.

This apparent investigation will also be news to the members of the LMF board, who met on May 19 to continue their work as the impasse dragged on. Ben Emory of Salisbury Cove pleaded with other board members to go on record opposing the governor’s action.

“I’m very disappointed to be undercut by the governor,“ Emory said. “I think if we don’t follow through on our promises we will diminish trust in Maine state government.”

Board Chairman William Vail rebuffed Emory’s plea, calling any resolution against the governor “a mistake.” Vail vowed that the board would continue its work as the law requires, without joining the partisan debate.

Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb argued that the work of the board is not immune from politics.

“This one board does not exist in a political bubble,” Whitcomb said. “It is part of the public discourse on the use of funds.”

The LMF board follows a lengthy and meticulous process as it decides how to spend voter-approved money. Various subcommittees consider nominations, projects, appraisal prices, and easements.

The issue will be considered by the Appropriations Committee, when it reviews a bill offered by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that would authorize up to $20 million in bonds for the LMF program and prevent the governor from tying up those funds in the future.

Battle over mining

The controversial quest of the Irving Corp. of Canada to begin mining at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County has brought a sharply worded testimony from the legislator who represents an area that was the site of a mining operation many years ago.

The bill, LD 750, which environmentalists say would weaken the rules for mining in Maine, received an 8-5 majority ought-to-pass vote in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and is headed to the floor of the Legislature.

But the process to work that bill was attacked by Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, who told the Environment and Natural Resources Committee at a recent hearing that because the amended bill fails to include the usual public input into the rule-making process for mining operations it was “egregious, disrespectful and dishonest.”

Chapman said the weakened bill would not protect taxpayers from the huge potential clean-up costs for failed mining operations.

The bill is strongly supported by the LePage administration and the Department of Environmental Protection. Chapman accused the DEP of not following the “statutory requirements of (previous) enabling legislation.”

Environmentalists expect a tough fight on the bill when it gets to the floor of the House. Among their concerns is sulfuric acid contamination from the mining, especially in Maine’s wet climate.

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Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.