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Commissioner's Corner

October 3, 2014

Commissioner Aho talking at first meeting of Northern New England chapter of Recycling and Waste Management Association

Materials Management: Priority for the LePage Administration

Those who follow the work of DEP closely will know that materials management is a priority of this Administration. But some of you may not know that my role as Commissioner of DEP is not my first experience with public service and materials management. In the 1980s I was on the Select Board in Boothbay Harbor and helped create the Boothbay Region Refuse District. Materials Management motivates me. It’s what got me started in public service because I see the opportunities and markets that are ripe for development.

Just as I did in the 1980s, I’m constantly thinking of how do we as a municipality, department or as a state, find additional ways to beneficially reuse more of the materials.

Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Northern New England Chapter of the National Waste and Recycling Association.

It was a perfect opportunity to highlight what Governor LePage and I are doing to promote a more holistic approach to solid waste. And it begins with what we call it.

A cornerstone of our work here at DEP includes the establishment of a Sustainability Division merging a number of separate programs into one integrated unit to improve reuse, recycling and repurposing of materials. We’ve also paid back over $800,000 to municipalities that were promised reimbursement from the State for closing or cleaning up their old landfills. We held eight food scrap diversion and composting workshops across the State to promote removing organics from the waste stream. We led consumer public awareness campaigns to promote the safe and responsible disposal of baby wipes, medical sharps and prescription drugs. We designated three new chemicals – cadmium, arsenic and mercury. We are finding new approaches and opportunities for market-based management of other materials such as carpets, rugs and mattresses.

This is just the tip of what we have done here at DEP to take a more sustainable approach to materials management.

September 22, 2014

Maine Oil Spill Response: Presentation at ECOS

Last week, I had the opportunity to highlight Maine’s long history of preparation and protection of our marine and how we have adapted those plans to the increases of crude oil shipments via rail. Given Maine’s experience and leadership, the Environmental Council of States (ECOS) invited me to speak on DEP’s oil spill response.

In Maine we have the Maine Coastal & Inland Surface Oil Cleanup Fund (Surface Fund), which is funded by a 3 cents per barrel on crude oil transportation. The DEP collects a fee from both onloading and offloading between terminal and vessel and vessel to vessel. The fee is also collected from anyone transporting more than 25 barrels oil at any one time by rail or highway. The Surface Fund pays for expenses incurred by DEP to carry out its responsibilities under Maine statutes, including: cleaning up oil spills; purchasing oil spill cleanup equipment; restoring water supplies; and 3rd party damages; planning and preparedness activities.
Due to the increase of the unrefined crude shipments by rail, in 2012 I directed the Division of Response Services to create inland environmental vulnerability maps like we have for the coast. Also in the spring 2013, we clarified the law to ensure the fee collection and license for unrefined crude shipments.

While no state or community could ever prepare for the tragedy like Lac-Megantic devastating rail derailment and fires, the Maine DEP has been recognized by our counterparts in other states for our preparations and regulatory framework to address spills.

September 18, 2014

Priority Chemicals

The department has received many inquiries about our decision to not finalize the priority chemical rulemaking for formaldehyde.

It is interesting to note that in January of this year we were responding to correspondence from citizens who were upset that DEP would propose prioritizing formaldehyde. In fact, during our rulemaking process, the department received no comments in support of the designation of formaldehyde as a priority chemical. The letters and emails we received called the proposed rules “sham rules” and stated that the proposed rule would “...have accomplished nothing to protect our children’s health.”

With the overwhelming lack of support, the department decided to wait for more finalized science based data. The department has the National Toxicology Program report but we are also waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) final assessment of formaldehyde.
In May 2014, the department did finalize rulemakings to designate arsenic, cadmium and mercury as priority chemicals, doubling the number of priority chemicals in Maine. Formaldehyde remains a chemical on the state’s Chemicals of High Concern list and continues to be positioned for possible promotion to Priority Chemical status.

In addition to implementing the three new priority chemicals, the department is also reviewing the Chemicals of High Concern list for future designations of priority status.

September 15, 2014

Commissioner Aho with Goodwill employees

Goodwill: A Leader in Sustainability

One of Maine’s sayings is ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’, and that is how we Mainer’s approach the challenges and activities of life. Never just ‘throw something away’ if it can be reused, repurposed or beneficially redirected. Goodwill Industries of Northern New England epitomizes these values.

Many of us have shopped or donated to Goodwill stores but what you may not know about is the impressive behind the scenes work, Goodwill employees do to repurpose or resell products. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Goodwill NNE’s huge warehouse in Gorham and saw the impact of this service. I was impressed with the electronics recycling unit where they consolidate, dismantle and refurbish older donated laptops.

As we move forward growing and cultivating marketplaces for our used goods in Maine, Goodwill Industries will be a valuable partner.

August 27, 2014

Money for cleaning or closing landfills

Payback and DEP aren’t often in the same spoken in the same sentence but under Governor Paul R. LePage, some municipalities are welcoming the combination. That’s because we’re honoring our promise and paying back our overdue bills to the communities who closed or cleaned up their landfills. See more about the issue in this news release: http://www.maine.gov/dep/news/news.html?id=626819

August 15, 2014

Lake Protection

Summer is a great time for Mainers and visitors to enjoy our lakes! Summer is also when DEP staff are busy with our commitment to protect Maine’s lakes.

We’ve updated the “Invasives” webpage based on feedback from the public and have participated in numerous trainings and events like the Jordan Bay Challenge to raise awareness about the milfoil infestation on Sebago Lake.

Last month, I had the pleasure of keynoting the Maine Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program’s annual training. I met dozens of volunteers whose passion for lakes protection and improvement is unparalleled. I spoke about how the department shares that commitment.

In fact, everything that the department does is to protect water quality in Maine. If you think about it our Air Bureau engineers work with sources to reduce emissions, our responders prevent oil or hazardous materials from reaching watersheds and our land division staff incorporate low impact development into major projects. All aspects of the department protect and enhance Maine’s environment, which benefits our lakes. So while summer is still here, make sure you get out and enjoy our refreshingly clean water!

July 15, 2014

Sustainable Maine

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by the Bangor Metro for its annual Green Issue and highlighted how DEP promotes Sustainability throughout our programs. I also asked consumers and the public to think how their actions can make a big difference in the health of our environment we all enjoy so much in Maine. I encourage you to take a look at the article linked below.

Bangor Metro Q&A with Commissioner Aho

May 22, 2014

Progress On Clean Up of Petroleum Contaminated Sites

Many people are aware that DEP’s responders are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, to clean up and oversee all types of small and large oil and hazardous materials spills. Behind the scenes, the Division of Technical Services and Remediation staff are also working hard to clean up long-term oil sites. These are sites that may we may have responded to or were not made aware of the contamination until there were unrelated tests. In fact, the department cleaned 54 sites in the first quarter of 2014, which is at a rate slightly ahead of past years. The department’s goal is to get these properties cleaned up and put back into productive use as soon as practicable and we’re proud that we’re making progress on that goal. You can view some more information of Maine’s Environmental Trends including the number of sites that we've cleaned up through our dashboard.

April 15, 2014

Annual DEP Staff Day

This week, the department took a few minutes to pause and spend some time with each other at our annual staff day.

In December the Governor presented the awards for Manager of the Year and today we again thanked Carla Hopkins for the trust and respect she has garnered from all members of her unit because she consistently sustains excellence in her work and leadership.

In December, the Governor also presented the Employee Service Award to Greg O’Brien for consistently working through difficult situations with an emphasis on communication and assistance to the affected and concerned people involved in emergency spills.

We provided the Metallic Mining Rules team with a public service award for their work on drafting, responding, re-drafting and working through many public meetings, deliberative sessions, public comments and concerns. The team comprised of Jeff Crawford, Mark Stebbins, John Hopeck, Bill Hinkel, David Burns, Stacy Ladner and Tracy Weston-Kelly provided scientific and technical evaluation, research and years of expertise to draft a comprehensive rule implementing the 2012 framework law.

Steve Eufemia was a responder and supervisor in our southern Maine office who was widely respected for his thoughtfulness, his modesty, his deep commitment to the environment and his care for others. Steve’s untimely death in 1999 deprived DEP of someone whose personal qualities made him a true leader. To honor Steve, the Department established an award to be given to the supervisor or manager who best epitomized Steve’s professional qualities. We recognized a supervisor who fosters openness within the unit, takes the time to listen, encourages and lends a hand and provides space for his staff to develop recommendations for projects. We are pleased to recognize Rob Peale as this year’s recipient of the Steve Eufemia award.

Too many times when we hear the term “customer service”, we think of service to our external customers and forget that much of our work serves others within the Department or within state government. These functions are vital to making sure all of the wheels turn smoothly and that forms, reports, permits, statistics and the multitude of work gets done. Whether it is taking the lead role in training new staff to become familiar with processing permit-by-rule land applications, making a sure that reports, telephones, supplies and all the daily needs of the office are met, she does so with a positive attitude and enthusiasm. We are pleased to award April Kirkland with our Customer Service recognition.

When people think about the work of the DEP, one of the first thoughts which come to mind is the science and the data which supports that science. Though it means hundreds of thousands of hours in collecting, sampling, analyzing and reporting, sometimes we forget that is what it takes to make the seemingly simple statement that “our air is clean” or, “this water is Class AA”. We know it isn’t simple.

This year’s recipient of the Evelyn Jephson Award, our highest recognition, has proven himself to be a true leader by example. Spending countless hours in the field or analyzing data and results, he shepherded Maine’s aquatic life criteria and the model developed to support those criteria from their inception through adoption and full implementation. As a result of his perseverance and hard work, this program is not only successful in Maine but in many states around the country.

So often a career can be defined by a single accomplishment but his accomplishments over the last 25 years at DEP and his continued level of commitment and hard work lead us to congratulation Leon Tsomides for receiving the Evelyn Jephson Award and for his accomplishments over his career at DEP and for his commitment to the people of Maine.

Please join me in congratulating all of our award recipients and thank them for protecting and enhancing Maine’s natural resources and environment.

February 28, 2014

Consequences of EPA's Draft Rule on Residential Wood Burning Devices

Many Mainers depend on wood stoves as a heating source especially in Aroostook County and Downeast areas according to a 2008 study of residential wood smoke. I know that we need to ensure that Mainers continue to have access to safe and affordable wood heating units, which is why yesterday I went to Boston to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency’s only public hearing on the draft wood heater rule.

As written, the draft rule would have serious consequences on Maine’s citizens, forest products industry, related manufacturers and the multitude of small businesses who exist to meet needs related to residential wood burning. The department has been meeting with a wide-range of these small businesses including pellet manufacturers, wood stove manufacturers, chimney sweeps and stove dealers, to fully understand how EPA’s draft rule would affect them and to ensure we incorporate their feedback before the State submitted comments to EPA.

I’m proud to support steps to ensure consumers have choices in the marketplace which improve efficiency and environmental performance. Under the current rule, there is a different emission standard for catalytic and non-catalytic stoves; however, EPA provides no distinction in the draft rule. This causes concern because each type has different advantages and disadvantages and in reality are not the same type of stove. As drafted, the rule could effectively eliminate non-catalytic stoves from the marketplace. Read my full testimony here: http://www.maine.gov/dep/news/news.html?id=615355.

February 7, 2014

Environmental Excellence

I’m excited to share that the nominations for the annual Governor’s Awards on Environmental Excellence are open. This is our time to recognize organizations that have a program or project which has yielded meaningful environmental and economic benefits. This year there are five categories: businesses with under 20 employees; businesses with 20-99 employees ; businesses with more than 100 employees; non-profits; and state, local or federal agencies. Many of us interact daily with organizations, facilities, or government sectors who are deserving of this recognition because of their ingenuity to protect our environment. I encourage you to let them know that the nominations are open and self-nominations are welcome! The nomination forms can be found through the following link http://maine.gov/dep/assistance/govaward.html and are due to the department by February 28. Again this year, the award ceremony will be held in the early spring. Thank you for your support to make this another successful year for the Environmental Excellence Awards and helping us recognize our leaders of Maine’s environment.

January 23, 2014

Save Your Pipes: "Don't Flush Baby Wipes"

On Tuesday, I participated in the "Save Your Pipes: Don't Flush Baby Wipes" campaign with the Maine WasteWater Control Association and INDA, the association of nonwoven fabrics. The Department of Environmental Protection is delighted to support this educational campaign.

Too many of us just flush the toilet and do not know or care to know what happens next but the DEP would like to challenge all of us to think further than the flush. What goes down the toilet comes out eventually and our waste water treatment operators who are truly the frontline defenders of protecting one of Maine’s most valuable natural resources – our clean water – must handle what comes out on the other end.

Treatment operators have told the DEP that with the sales of wipes and new products growing exponentially, consumers can be confused by which ones can be flushed or not, leading to clogs. These clogs cost time and money for homeowners with septic systems and taxpayers who pay for public sewer systems.

Operators must divert resources from system maintenance and upgrades to the system -- often more efficient and desirable for the environment -- and unclog pumps caused by the flushing of baby wipes. Even when pumps and equipment clog with materials not designed to be flushed and can no longer function, it does not mean sewage stops.

Clogs contribute to sewer back-ups into homes, clogging of wastewater system equipment, difficulty maintaining septic systems, and sewer overflows which have negative impacts on the environment. Overflows flood pump stations and surge into our waterways. Sewer overflows can be a danger to public health and can also harm Maine’s critical fish and shellfish, tourism, and recreation industries. Reducing clogs caused by flushing of baby wipes, can mean reducing harmful overflows ensuring our water bodies are protected.

Seemingly inconsequential individual actions make a big difference when taken collectively. The flushing of baby wipes does make a difference – it costs money to fix a clogged pipe, whether at your home or at your town’s waste water plant, and it contaminates our water with harmful bacteria.

So again, I challenge you – think further than the flush, save your pipes, don’t flush baby wipes – the environmental and economic benefits are clear.

December 30, 2013

Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program

I was excited to meet with Scott Williams and Roberta Hill of the Maine Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program (VLMP) earlier this month. Often noted nationally as the gold-standard of citizen lakes monitoring, VLMP is a network of over 1,000 volunteers located across the state that have been trained and provided with equipment to collect data from Maine lakes. Their scientific data on water quality indicators is critical assistance for DEP. We cannot do our work without VLMP and rely on their quality science, passion and training to ensure thousands of volunteers (some of whom count their service in decades!) are engaged and eager to assist each year. With a very small budget, the work of VLMP is an outstanding service to Maine by being at the forefront of keeping our lakes healthy and safe. DEP is proud to support VLMP’s work to protect Maine’s lakes and look forward to continuing this successful partnership.

November 25, 2013

Global Harmonization

All workers in the United States, including those in the private and public sectors, must be trained in the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) new Global Harmonization System (GHS) by this Sunday, December 1, 2013. Fortunately, the Maine Department of Labor created a helpful 23 minute video to train every employee in Maine. Many DEP employees and constituents handle hazardous materials and watching this video can help keep us all safe. Link to the video:http://www.safetyworksmaine.com/training/onlineclasses/hazardcommunication/.

November 12, 2013

Environmental Council of States

Recently, I was selected as the Environmental Council of States (ECOS) Planning Committee Chair. ECOS is a national non-partisan, non-profit association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders and is currently looking for a new Executive Director. Maine has been a member for years, and as Chair of the Planning Committee, I will be leading ways to improve state strategic planning efforts nationwide and find ways to increase communications between EPA and all states. In fact, at a recent ECOS meeting, I asked EPA about how states should comment on a recent petition that would needlessly create difficulties for municipalities to effectively manage stormwater. I look forward to continuing this conversation and others with ECOS, EPA and my colleagues across the country.

September 26, 2013

Legislative Highlights

I had the pleasure of speaking on behalf of the Department this morning at E2Tech’s legislative and policy forum this morning. Sometimes I think folks forget that after the debate in the Legislature it is up to the agency to actually implement the laws, draft, write and carry-out the rules, make all of the new requirements mesh with the ongoing requirements, make the new requirements mesh with our financial and staffing allocations and requirements – and also meet the requirements imposed on us by EPA and potentially other federal agencies as well. And yes, this is still policy, but the public administration aspects of policy are many times forgotten. Here is some statistics about the past legislative session, which helps to put our work in perspective.

  • 1577 bills introduced
  • Roughly 1/3 became law for a total of 530
  • DEP tracked 242 bills
    • By tracking, I mean that policy staff reviewed the text, listened to hearings and kept Office of Commissioner informed
  • 15 presentations to legislative committees, including -
    • several presentations on the department, budget, and program review
    • Mining
    • Shoreland Zoning & NPRA
    • Product Stewardship
  • Prepared 13 legislative reports
  • Participated in over 140 public hearings and work sessions

Looking forward to the upcoming session, we will continue our dialogue through the work of updating the Materials Management Plan which the department will be presenting to the legislature. We have no choice but to think differently about our waste and make changes because every day approximately 4,800 tons of municipal solid waste is generated within Maine by residential and commercial activity. 40% of that is comprised of organics, which provides us with significant opportunities for higher use, whether through composting, agronomic utilization or other uses. One of the department’s priorities is for the state to move beyond the use of a traditional landfill and look toward a more comprehensive analysis of Maine’s waste stream to support additional waste diversion through regulatory, voluntary, and market-based programs.

September 6, 2013

Paying Back our Debts

Municipalities did the right thing for the environment by either cleaning up or closing their landfills that threatened the environment and public health, and DEP is doing the right thing for the economy by getting its fiscal house in order. Prior to their closure or clean-up process, municipalities were promised by state officials that they would receive partial reimbursement from DEP, but it won’t be a surprise to some, the State ran out of funding for the program and the towns and cities never fully paid back. Last month I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Greenville and Bath to start the repayment process. The reimbursements are being funded by a new $2 per ton fee on construction and demolition debris – the only waste stream exempt from any handling fee. Presque Isle, Caratunk, Greenville, Bath, and Caribou, Limestone and Fort Fairfield – the trio of towns that own the Tri-Community Landfill will all see checks biannually until the balance has been paid off completely.

August 13, 2013

Commonsense Regulations

I spoke to the Portland Rotary Club last week to talk about DEP’s focus on environmental literacy, sustainability, and commonsense regulations. One such law, is An Act Regarding Working Waterfront Projects, that ensures that the working waterfront projects that are part of a clean-up or a redevelopment plan can occur without having to meet the strict standards regarding trees and shrubs’ removal. This means more money can be used to clean-up a hazardous property and put back to productive use – it’s a win-win situation for the economy and the environment.

July 24, 2013

Groundbreaking for New Gloucester water system

New Gloucester Water System

Last week, I had the honor of celebrating the groundbreaking of the New Gloucester Water System. 27 years ago leaking underground storage tanks contaminated private residents' wells, and DEP removed the harmful soil, installed water filtration systems, provided hundreds of thousands of financial assistance and thousands of hours of technical assistance to ensure public health of New Gloucester residents. Town officials, the water district, residents, USDA/RD and Cumberland County CDBG all came together with DEP to break ground on a permanent solution to protect public water supplies. I hope more municipalities see the results of this collaborated effort and turn to DEP for assistance with developing public water supplies. If your town needs help from DEP, visit our Assistance page.

July 16, 2013

Commissioner Aho with check

Brownfields Success

Do you know of a hazardous property that should be cleaned up in your town? Maine has one of the most successful Brownfields Programs in the country, consistently receiving higher than average funds from other states. This is in large part due to the excellent work DEP staff does to inform interested parties about the program, providing assistance during the grant application process, and following up after the grant is received. Hazardous properties that are cleaned-up and put back into productive use protect the environment and public health thus spurring our economy forward. Visit our Brownfields Program for more information.