AUGUSTA — As a little girl, Patricia Ann Waugh learned to swim in the cove at West Boothbay Harbor’s Juniper Point and could row a boat before she could ride a bicycle. She loved to be outdoors.

That girl from coastal Maine grew up to spend be an attorney representing factories, mills and the petroleum industry, among other clients.

Now Patricia Aho, she’s been tapped to lead the state department that regulates those groups. She is charged with striking a balance between being business-friendly and ensuring that the environment is adequately protected.

The state Senate in September approved the appointment of Aho, 54, as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, a Cabinet-level position in Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. Aho says her background will help her do the job. “I think having an understanding of those industries and their processes is very helpful coming through the door here,” she said during a recent interview.

Those who have worked with her for many years in the State House say that Aho, until recently a lobbyist, has been an outsider who is now ready to make a difference on the inside.

“She’s very detail-oriented,” said John Delahanty, a fellow lobbyist and partner at the Pierce Atwood law firm. “She’s very thorough. She is creative in her thinking. I know she’s very appreciative of this opportunity. She happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

In December, Aho registered as a lobbyist for a few clients to prepare for the upcoming legislative session. She then talked with Darryl Brown, LePage’s first DEP commissioner, about taking the job of deputy commissioner, a position that would mean spending hours representing the department before the Legislature.

Brown stepped down in April after Attorney General William Schneider ruled that his former business interests made him ineligible to serve in the position. Two months later, Aho was named acting commissioner and LePage announced in September that she was his pick to take the job, which pays $102,689 a year.

Among her responsibilities will be to manage a DEP budget that has been shrinking, so she’s looking at ways to make the department more efficient.

“We’re very much still the same organizational structure as when we started 40 years ago,” she said. Aho expects the 400-person staff to continue to shrink as staffers retire.

The department gets only about 10 percent of its funding from the state General Fund. Most of its $76 million-a-year budget comes from permit and license fees and the federal government. The slumping economy has meant fewer permit applications — and as a result, less revenue from fees. Some plants, such as paper mills, have closed, further diminishing the fees paid to the DEP.

Federal funding has also been decreasing, as have fees collected on gasoline and heating oil because the use of both is down.

“As those activities have slumped during this recession, we obviously don’t get as much money through the door as we did when the economy was robust,” she said. “I think that I have to look at those and realize we’re not going to have a miracle overnight and need to make sure we understand that our resources may be diminished for another year or so.”

Aho was raised on the coast, where she has deep family roots dating back to the mid-1800s.

“We were the only year-round family for a number of miles,” she said. “All of the other houses there were seasonal cottages and summer families and visitors.”

But as idyllic as the Maine coast was in the late 1950s, it was also a time when trash often littered the beach and boats emptied their waste tanks into the water untreated.

“I grew up in a cove before we had treated discharges,” she said. “Grew up cleaning our beaches from the trash that came from the ocean or that others left behind.”

Aho’s father was an offset commercial printer who worked in the basement of the house.

“I started running the printing press when I was about 12 years old and was a printer for him for a number of years,” she said. “My mom also worked in the business. She was the typesetter.”

A 1975 graduate of Boothbay Region High School, Aho went on to Nasson College in Springvale, where she studied sociology. After graduating from the college, which has since closed, Aho earned her law degree at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., in 1982.

She came back to Boothbay Harbor, set up a private practice and ran for the Board of Selectmen. After that, she became a staff attorney for the Maine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where she focused on environmental, insurance, tax and labor issues.

It was then that she met Sharon Treat, a current Democratic state representative from Hallowell, who worked at the time as a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Treat remembers that she and Aho were on the opposite side of many issues.

“She was a very honorable person and I really liked working with her,” Treat said. “She was a straight-ahead person.”

Back then, there was no public notice of legislative work sessions. Treat said Aho would give her a heads up if she knew about a meeting that Treat would not want to miss.

“She was the sort of person who would go out of her way to find me to say you might want to be there because I will be there,” she said.

While working with the chamber in the mid-1980s, Aho helped the paper companies, shoe factories and textile mills comply with regulations in areas such as river reclassification, acid deposition and solid waste.

She later worked for Dyer, Goodall and LaRouche and the Maine Merchants Association before landing at Maine Petroleum Association, where she served as executive director from 1992-2003.

“Every single place I’ve worked really helps bring a different perspective,” she said. “It brings different concerns, it brings different interests and issues on how you make an appropriate balance, whether it’s understanding how these issues affect small businesses or larger regulated industries.”

Most recently, she worked at the Maine Oil Dealers Association and at the Pierce Atwood law firm as a lobbyist for auto manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Casella Waste Systems, Dead River Co., Poland Spring and Verso Paper.

As deputy commissioner at DEP, much of her time was spent working on L.D. 1, a bill that sought to ease regulations, many of them environmental, to help businesses. In its original form, the bill’s 63 proposals drew angry criticism from environmental groups, who complained of what they saw as proposed rollbacks to important environmental protections.

After months of debate, the final product was praised by business and environmental groups for striking the right balance between the interests of both.

Aho said the new legislation gives her agency more power to write rules, allows businesses to conduct their own environmental audits, identify problems and work with the department to come into compliance.

It also eased restrictions on companies reusing chemicals and other materials that they otherwise would have had to dispose of as waste. Allowing companies to recycle materials such as isopropyl alcohol and wood ash makes sense for the business community and the environment, she said.

For fun, Aho likes to golf with her husband, Ron, and work in her flower garden. She met Ron when they both tried out for a Lincoln County Community Theater production of “Guys and Dolls.”

She was cast as a Hot Box Girl and he was Benny Southstreet.

They recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and live in Newcastle.

“I’m a Maine girl and my heart’s still here,” she said. “I look forward to being able to serve the citizens of Maine in this new role.”

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