Now we know why it was important that a Republican-controlled Legislature rejected Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to abolish the Board of Environmental Protection in 2011.
Killing BEP wasn’t a point that attracted the most attention in the lobbyist-written “environmental rollback” agenda. Those items included gutting the kid-safe product act and zoning 3 million acres of the North Woods for development. But preserving BEP was among the most important.
BEP is unusual among state agencies in that a citizen board reviews administrative decisions of the Department of Environmental Protection. At the time DEP was created, it was thought that its decisions could be so far-reaching, with such a dramatic effect on Maine’s quality of life, that it should be subject to independent review.
The wisdom of that decision has been confirmed many times, and it was again last week when BEP overturned a ruling against a 14-turbine wind project on Passadumkeag Mountain in southern Penobscot County. DEP’s staff and commissioner was ruling on the first major wind project in the unorganized territory since that task was removed from the former Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) last year.
Commission Patricia Aho and spokeswoman Samantha Depoy-Warren sounded pretty sure of themselves before the BEP voted 5- 1 to vacate its denial. “Anyone who looked at the picture agreed that there was an unreasonable adverse impact from this project,” said Depoy-Warren, who also pointed out that BEP had “never” reversed a staff decision on wind power – but then, it had never considered one in the unorganized territory, either.
Even after the vote, Aho strayed outside the role of an administrator legally subordinate to BEP. “Sometimes we need to say no and the board’s vote calls into question whether we can truly do that when it comes to mountaintop development,” she said. To which one must respond: Commissioner, it’s not your call.
The issue at Passadumkeag Mountain was the same as the one in which LURC, in its final vote on windpower, used to curtail the Bowers Mountain wind project nearby – visual impact.
This is a notoriously subjective area that is, however, fairly well defined in state law. Where the view is unusually significant, agencies may consider it up to 8 miles from the project site, though even then a project must create an “unreasonably adverse” impact. Simply saying that the turbines are visible from “97 percent” of nearby Saponac Pond in the town of Lincoln, as Depoy-Warren did, doesn’t answer the question.
If simple visibility of a wind turbine were the standard, then it’s safe to say that no more wind projects on this scale would be built in Maine.
Like much of our public life, wind turbines have become intensely polarized. Some Mainers who live within a few miles of them – but much too far away to hear their operation – have decided they are an affront to their peace of mind, and have become increasingly well-organized. There are actually anti-wind lobbyists at the State House, whose arguments find sympathetic ears in the LePage administration.
But the state has set a priority on responsible development of its wind resource, the largest in the Northeast, through agreement by a wide variety of stakeholders, including the state’s largest environmental groups. Not everyone is going to agree, naturally, but not wanting to see a distant wind tower isn’t a valid reason for denying construction permits.
Gov. LePage was more restrained than usual in his criticism of BEP, saying only that he was “deeply disappointed.” Perhaps that’s because he’s already appointed four members of the seven-member board. Three of them sided with the majority, while the fourth, while dissenting, conceded that DEP’s denial arguments were “vague.”
LePage, who’s reiterated his interest in importing hydropower from Quebec at every opportunity, seems curiously uninterested in this indigenous renewable energy source that’s produced $1 billion in capital investment here, and could produce $1 billion more if the regulatory environment remains consistent.
Buying hydropower from Quebec produces no more economic benefit here than buying petroleum and – something LePage never mentions – it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to build the necessary transmission line from Canada — construction people might like even fewer than wind towers.
Admittedly, DEP wasn’t one of LePage’s favorite causes. His first choice as commissioner, developer Darryl Brown, was forced to resign because of legal conflicts. His second, Aho, was best known at the State House as lobbyist for the Maine Petroleum Association.
Executive authority should be subject to reasonable review in the courts and, in this case, through a citizen board: BEP.
It’s a timely reminder on how much we rely on checks and balances to make our democratic system work.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.