Maine: ACC lobbyist-turned-environmental chief
In Maine, the ACC’s connection to the top is decidedly direct: The state’s environmental chief was, until her arrival to the Maine department in 2011, a registered ACC lobbyist.
Lawyer Patricia Aho was the principal lobbyist for the ACC on multiple bills in the 2011 session, her filings show, after representing the chemistry council and other clients for years. Among the bills she registered on behalf of the ACC in the 2011-12 session:
Aho joined the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in early 2011; that September, Gov. LePage named her commissioner. Aho has long touted her connection to business. Her official bio on the governor’s website, for instance, notes that the Kennebec County Chamber of Commerce honored her “advocacy on behalf of the business community.”
Under her watch, Maine has been slow to adopt toxics reform.
This session, the ACC was among organizations opposing the proposal to “further strengthen” protections for pregnant women and children from chemicals. In filings to the state, the ACC cited TSCA reform as one reason the bill was not needed. “In sum, TSCA’s New Chemicals program is considered one of TSCA’s major regulatory successes,” the organization wrote.
As it had in Connecticut, the ACC asked whether the proposal was “even necessary and whether it would have any public health benefit to the children of Maine.”
Advocates were trying to build upon earlier progress. Already, Maine had adopted a list of 49 chemicals of high concern, making it one of the few states to publicize such a list. But, heading into the 2013 session, supporters said, the state had not taken steps to remove products tainted with those same toxins.
“The bill will identify which products contain the 49 ‘worst of the worst’ chemicals and set priorities for action to get those chemicals out of household products that Maine children encounter every day,” wrote the Maine Conservation Voters. The bill would have pushed the state DEP to each year prioritize two chemicals, from the 49, and set about studying alternatives to replace them.
With the ACC and business leaders fighting the bill, it was seriously scaled back.
By session’s end, the bill was narrowed to effectively require companies with $1 billion in annual sales to disclose their use of BPA in food packaging. But it would not require the state to keep adding high priority chemicals to the list.
“There was a clear shift … to more of a transparency bill, but it’s important that we make progress,” said the bill sponsor, then-Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall. “And in the current climate here in Maine we had to be realists and pragmatic and move forward.”
Aho’s department had voiced objections, damaging the bill’s chances.
“This bill is complex and includes many interwoven components that would greatly expand the reach of the current program, the consequence of which would be a big government program focused on churning out rules and processing paperwork, rather than engaging in meaningful analysis and informed decision-making,” a DEP director testified in April.
Three months later, the governor vetoed it.
Aho’s revolving door from industry lobbyist to state regulator drew scrutiny in a recent series in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, entitled “The Lobbyist in the Henhouse.” It described how environmental regulation and enforcement has slowed considerably under her watch.
The Center for Public Integrity, exploring Aho’s dual roles, sought an interview with the commissioner. Aho declined the request, but a spokeswoman said Aho had been an attorney in Maine since 1982, practicing government and regulatory affairs.
“And her background is no different than many other attorneys who have or are serving in agencies or departments in the state of Maine,” said the statement from DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan. “And any questions about her potential conflicts of interest were thoroughly vetted when she joined state government over two years ago and later during her confirmation process as commissioner, where she was confirmed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, 35-0.”
The attention over her dual roles triggered a firestorm, with the Sierra Club pressing Republican Gov. LePage to oust her. LePage’s anger, instead, turned toward the press — not his director, who remains in office.
Following the critical reports, Aho dispatched an email to staffers in June, with the subject line ‘Welcome to Summer.’ It said the agency was moving to protect Maine’s natural environment. “I remain committed to taking my responsibilities of environmental stewardship seriously and am proud that our DEP is a resourceful, respectful, and responsive agency,” she wrote.
Aho added, “The protection of our environment and natural resources and a robust economy do not have to conflict.”
Beth Ahearn, political director for the Maine Conservation Voters, said Aho had been respected as a lobbyist for being reasonable to deal with and having “a lot of integrity.”
But her rise to the top environmental post raises larger questions.
“How do we separate our background from the decisions we make? And that’s a tougher question,” Ahearn said in an interview. “Obviously she knows those companies or worked with those companies really well, and has that perspective, the company’s perspective.
“We want the commissioner of environmental protection to be all about environmental protection.”
Reform bills filed, and fought, from Florida to Washington State
Across the country, a pattern has emerged: State officials pitch proposals to identify and potentially ban toxic chemicals, grassroots groups rally behind the proposals — and the bills die in committee or get watered down, with the ACC, business groups and legislative critics pushing back.
To many, Washington State is a leader in toxics reform. The state adopted a “Chemicals of High Concern to Children” list, 66 chemicals from formaldehyde to benzene to BPA the state considers potentially hazardous. Other states have tried to follow suit and create their own lists — the first step, advocates say, in ultimately removing products that can sicken children.
This session in Washington State, advocates filed the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, a bill aimed at banning two forms of toxic flame retardants from reaching children — and barring manufacturers from replacing them with similarly dangerous products. Even there, the larger reform butted up against opposition.
“The main opposition is the American Chemistry Council. It’s a well-funded, well organized force and they are able to come in, organize in-state business and out-of-state businesses — Wal-Mart and Target come to mind,” said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, with the nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition. Opponents are “able to sow enough doubt in legislators’ minds that some put the brakes on this type of legislation.”
“The ACC and their allies,” she added, “their main tactic is to delay any meaningful reform.”
In the Senate, the bill was weakened to target only products already being phased out. It failed to revive in the House and died entirely, said bill co-sponsor Sen. Nelson.
“Once again the chemical industry won the fight in Washington State,” Nelson said in August. “We had the chemical industry and Association of Washington Business, the usual suspects, sitting in the gallery making sure once again protections for children die in the state.”
Lobbyist Mark Greenberg, who represents the ACC in Washington State, routed a Center interview request to the chemistry council. The AWB, the state's “premiere advocate for the business community,” said it pushes an economic climate benefiting “all citizens.”
Nelson, trying for three years to adopt the change, said she won’t give up. “I’m a mom and I’m going to be a grandma possibly this week,” she had said in May. “It just makes me more committed to have something that is this clear that we need to ban. To have corporate interests continue to try to roll us on it makes me more committed to wanting to get it done.”
In Oregon this session, House Bill 3162 would have required the state to list “high priority chemicals of concern” present in children’s products from car seats to toys, jewelry and pacifiers. Under the initial bill, manufacturers would have to disclose if they used potentially toxic chemicals, and then phase them out in certain products.
Bill co-sponsor Keny-Guyer said she targets public health issues involving women and children. “I’m also very concerned about toxics in our environment, because we’ve had an explosion in chemical development over the decades, and our regulatory system has not kept up,” she said.
She quickly encountered resistance. In public hearings, the ACC and Toy Industry Association squared off against bill public health backers including Oregon nurses. “The American Chemistry Council, the Toy Association of America, the Associated Oregon Industries, Procter & Gamble, the pulp and paper industry, the International Fragrance Association ... have all opposed the bill and they are putting up a really pretty big fight,” Keny-Guyer said in June, with the bill still in play.
“Their arguments are it’s a slippery slope, they think it’s an undue burden on business, and it should be done at the federal level.” Her reply: “The feds have not kept up with the development of chemicals and are not adequately addressing this.”
By session’s end the next month, the bill never made it to the Senate for a vote, even as sponsors scrambled to save the measure by cutting out some elements. “In order to try to gain support in the Senate, we pared back the bill,” said Keny-Guyer. “The amendment was to take out the entire phase-out piece and only have disclosure. And even that could not get the 16th vote.”
Industry pushback, she said, doomed it. “I mean they brought in lobbyists in the end who kind of banded together and fought it tooth and nail,” the representative said.
In other states, some legislators are finding it hard to muster enthusiasm reforms will ever take root.
In Texas, Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, tried for three years to push a bill banning the sale of children’s products containing “bisphenol-A or certain other substances identified as known human carcinogens or banned hazardous substances.” BPA is an industrial chemical found in plastic bottles and metal cans that federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, say have “potential effects … on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”
Alvarado’s proposals never came for a vote. “I wasn’t surprised,” Alvarado said, knowing politics in Texas. “With these type of issues you keep pressing and moving forward, you can’t get bogged down. … You have to keep it moving forward and hopefully get some public discussion going on.”
In Florida, Rep. Mark Danish co-sponsored a bill this session to identify chemicals of high concern. The idea was to let consumers know which products contain potentially toxic chemicals, with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection posting the information online.
As in Texas, his bill never came for a vote — one of a string of toxic reform bills extinguished in the Sunshine State, the state legislative database shows.
“My bill got absolutely no traction whatsoever. People took notice of it, said ‘nice bill.’ I could not even get it to its first committee. Never even saw the light of day,” Danish said in an interview.
After he proposed the bill, he said, Florida’s agricultural industry called a meeting, worried he was targeting pesticides. Danish said he tried to calm nerves by saying he aspired only to inform the public about household chemicals of potential concern to pregnant women and children. No matter. The bill did not move forward — the victim, he believes, of legislative pushback against new regulations, along with resistance in the Republican controlled House to bills pitched by Democrats.
“It was kind of a shame, because I thought it was a good bill,” Danish said.
In North Carolina, Democratic Rep. Harrison proposed the Toxic Free Kids Act this session. Its aim: Protecting children “from harmful chemicals in their toys, furniture, car seats and other products that children touch, lick, inhale and snuggle up with every day,” advocates said.
It, too, failed to come for a vote, but instead was deemed by the House Commerce Committee to be a “study bill,” meaning it was going back for more study and could return next year.
“This is a legislature that’s highly anti-regulatory and there’s very little support for enacting stricter regulations on anything. This time around we had a Republican lead sponsor, we recruited a couple of Republicans to be on the bill,” Harrison said. “But unfortunately we couldn’t get the bill moved into the session, so we turned it into a study.
“I’ve been trying to get this issue studied forever.”
In other states, some reform measures have moved forward — after compromise with industry.
In Minnesota, State Sen. Katie Sieben helped sponsor a bill this session that bans BPA in toddler and infant food. It passed.
“It certainly took some negotiating with industry. One thing that helped was that BPA was already banned in Minnesota in sippy cups, and we were the first state in the nation to do that,” Sieben said in July, a baby bouncing on her lap during a phone interview. “And there are manufacturers who produce baby food without BPA in it, so there was a viable and known alternative.”
The final version was scaled back from an earlier proposal, which could have applied to any food targeted to children, to focus solely on toddler and infant food and formula. “There was a lot of pushback from food manufacturers. ‘It was too sweeping. Anything could be defined as children’s product,’ ” Sieben said. “Ultimately we had to take a more measured approach.”