Maine’s top environmental official is stepping down after a four-year tenure during which she clashed with environmental groups but is credited by others for helping improve the agency’s relationship with businesses.

Patricia Aho, who has been commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection since September 2011, will join the staff of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins as her office representative in Augusta, where she will oversee constituent service for Kennebec, Lincoln and Knox counties. A lawyer and former industry lobbyist, Aho has served as DEP commissioner throughout much of Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure in the Blaine House.

“Pattie has been a tremendous asset to the administration by improving efficiency and accountability throughout the Department of Environmental Protection,” LePage said in a statement. “We wish her well knowing she will bring value and experience to Senator Collins’ office.”

LePage announced that Avery Day, the governor’s senior policy adviser on environmental and natural resource issues, will serve as interim commissioner.

Aho has headed the DEP for much of LePage’s tenure in the governor’s office and, as his top environmental official, has been at the center of several contentious debates, ranging from renewable energy to chemicals in consumer products used by children to climate change. Environmental groups have accused Aho of being too cozy with industry, including several that she formerly represented at the State House.

“This has been an extremely challenging period for Maine’s environmental protection, and Commissioner Aho has been serving under a governor who has, from our perspective, pursued the most anti-environment agenda that we’ve seen in decades,” said Pete Didisheim, senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of the largest environmental advocacy groups in the state. “The DEP, as an agency, has lost many of the very best staff over the past five years.”

But representatives of the business community credited Aho with working to address concerns about red tape and inefficiencies at an agency responsible for permitting projects that could affect Maine’s air, land and water resources. Under Aho, the DEP streamlined the process to allow department staff to review more permit applications – rather than the Board of Environmental Protection – and reduced the processing time for many permits.

Ben Gilman, who represents the Maine State Chamber of Commerce on environmental, energy and natural resources policy issues in Augusta, said Aho has been “very good to work with … and brought some positive changes to the department.” Gilman credited Aho with reorganizing staff or programs to make it easier to file permits, improving the navigability of the DEP’s website for businesses and making other subtle but fundamental changes important to those being regulated.

“I do believe they have become more efficient for the business community, but at the same time, they have not lost the quality … and they still have a solid process to protect the environment,” Gilman said.

Aho, a resident of Newcastle, worked for roughly six years with the prominent legal and lobbying firm Pierce Atwood and more than a decade as executive director of the Maine Petroleum Association. Aho’s interim replacement at the DEP, Avery Day, also formerly worked in the government relations section of Pierce Atwood.

“Working with a dedicated staff, it has been my privilege to work to improve regulatory reform, increase accountability and transparency and modernize DEP’s approach to doing business,” Aho said in a statement.

As a gubernatorial candidate during the 2010 campaign, LePage was a vocal critic of what he saw as over-regulation of the environment by both the state and federal governments. Aho joined the DEP in March 2011 as deputy commissioner and then took over the top position six months later after the previous commissioner, Darryl Brown, stepped down.

Aho has had a strained relationship with the state’s environmental groups from the beginning of her tenure, although she has also worked closely with groups on some issues. Critics have accused the LePage administration of stepping back enforcement of some environmental laws and of driving many long-term department staffers away. NRCM’s Didisheim said that, by his count, the department has lost more than 120 staff members with more than 2,000 years of institutional knowledge during the past five years.

The DEP also came under criticism for failing to assert the state’s right to set water levels in reservoirs during the federal dam relicensing process, and proposed revisions to the state’s mining laws that were supported by the department were blocked twice by the Legislature. Environmental health groups have repeatedly accused the DEP, under Aho, of not moving fast enough to identify and then regulate potentially harmful chemicals used in consumer products such as Bisphenol A, an additive used in some plastic products as well as in canned food liners.

But while Mike Belliveau with the Environmental Health Strategy Center said Maine’s chemical safety law has “slowed considerably,” he said the DEP has not stopped implementing the law and he laid much of the criticism at the feet of LePage, not his commissioner.

“The commissioner was often a cautious voice of reason in an administration that was otherwise very hostile to public health protections,” Belliveau said. “We didn’t always agree (with Aho), but she didn’t always call the shots. The governor’s office did. … We were often critical of decisions made under her leadership, but we also cooperated privately with her whenever possible.”

Public health and environmental groups have credited the DEP under Aho’s leadership, however, for continuing to support tougher federal air pollution standards that could reduce emissions from upwind states that contribute to air pollution problems in Maine. Aho appeared to have a positive relationship with many members of the Legislature, even as lawmakers debated contentious issues such as the proposed re-write of state mining rules to allow a precious metals mine near Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain.

Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican who co-chairs the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said Aho has been under a microscope for much of her tenure. Saviello, a former environmental manager at the paper mill in Jay, believes Aho did good job attempting to balance all of the demands placed upon her. Saviello, who has clashed publicly with LePage on several recent occasions, added that he believed some of the criticism connected to Aho’s past as a lobbyist was over the top.

“Patty and I had a difference of opinion on a few things, but we sat down and worked it out,” Saviello said. “Patty has a very methodical way of going about things.”

Kevin Miller can be reached at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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