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Mitt Romney’s “Hostile Takeover” of Massachusetts Environmental Protections

Mitt Romney speaking to supporters at a rally in Tempe, Arizona, April 2012. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Forget tailgating, Mitt Romney went all out when the New England Patriots went to the Super Bowl in 2005. Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, diverted $45,000 from the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to hold a send-off rally for the football team at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium that prominently featured the former governor himself. The 2,500 people who attended the rally failed to fill the stadium, but they did cost taxpayers about $18 a head.

Five days after the rally, four high school students were struck by a pickup truck in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. School officials blamed the accident on poorly plowed roads. Governor Romney blamed the DCR, which was in charge of clearing snow from parkways where the accident occurred, and quickly fired DCR Commissioner Katherine Abbott less than a week after raiding her department’s coffers to pay for the pro football rally.

A source told The Boston Herald at the time that Romney’s administration “forced the DCR to spend that money” on the Patriots’ rally and Abbott “didn’t want to spend that much.”

Before the accident, Romney was displeased with Abbott’s handling of plowing parkways and the parks commission was in the process of handing its responsibilities to the highway service, according to The Boston Globe. Abbott’s supporters, however, said the former commissioner had experienced tensions with the governor’s office after refusing to hire an unsuccessful GOP House candidate Romney had recommended.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonpartisan alliance of local, state and federal environmental resource professionals, places at least some of the blame for the accident on political games and Romney’s decision to divert public funds to pay for the Patriots’ rally. The group says the fiasco is a prime example of Romney’s “take-no-prisoners” management style that intimidated and frustrated Massachusetts’s public servants and put environmental and public health protections on the chopping block.

“He approached governance like a hostile takeover and this resulted in gutted agencies, crippling reorganizations and poor morale among workers,” said New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former enforcement attorney with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Romney’s ‘bottom line’ did not include any consideration of either the public employees, or the environment they worked so hard to protect.”

Truthout’s effort to contact Abbott was unsuccessful and the Romney campaign did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.

Romney’s Vulture Capitalism Cripples Environmental Offices

Bennett told Truthout that Romney carried his “vulture capitalist” mindset right into the state house. In a recent PEER release, she said Romney’s 2003 to 2007 term as governor was characterized by “paralyzing purges, retaliatory re-assignments and crude gag orders” that diminished natural resource conservation and environmental and public health protections.

Bennett has said that public servants working inside Romney’s administration “constantly” told her “it was hard to remain inspired by the calling of public service” and they were “relieved” when Romney decided against running for a second term. Bennett and PEER cite several controversial decisions by Romney, including what PEER calls a “gag order” that forbid public employees from speaking with elected representatives and members of the media.

PEER’s investigations show that Romney reorganized environmental enforcers under business-friendly agencies, closed a central office and attempted to lay off civil attorneys working on environmental enforcement cases. As a result, key cases and enforcement projects were interrupted.

The Romney administration also interrupted cases when it shut down an administrative appeals office where citizens could appeal decisions made by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. All appeals were instead screened by the department’s commissioner, a Romney appointee, who could decide what appeals, if any, would be heard by a judge, according to PEER.

Romney Cut Funding and Outsourced Toxic Waste Cleanups

Cindy Luppi, regional program director of the Boston office for Clean Water Action, told Truthout that Romney did start his term as governor with an interest in air pollution and clean energy and the former governor “helped us stay on course on reducing power plant pollution” during his first two years in office. But that all changed when he set his sights on Washington.

“Then when he started exploring national office, he quickly backed away from leadership of any sort,” Luppi told Truthout. “And he never adequately addressed pollution prevention or even weighed in on children’s health protection from toxic chemicals, or other popular issues with all political bases.”

Under the Romney administration, funding for environmental enforcement in Massachusetts was cut by 25 percent, and by 2005 the state could no longer meet basic federal anti-pollution requirements, PEER reported.

Massachusetts has a legacy of hazardous and toxic waste due to the various rust belt industries that have existed there, and under the Romney administration, toxic waste cleanups were outsourced to private firms. A state audit in 2005 found that nearly three out of four private hazardous and toxic waste cleanups required follow-up work, and nearly one in ten were conducted so poorly that the private cleanup plan had to be retracted entirely.

In one case, a private contractor’s report used to declare a waste site in the town of Berkley to be clean was found invalid by a state audit. Meanwhile, a PEER study found an apparent cancer cluster among people living downstream from an old tannery in the town, but Romney’s health department failed to address the issue.

The Romney campaign did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout regarding PEER’s statements and investigations.

“Under Romney, public health protection was outsourced to the lowest bidder,” Bennett said. “Privatized toxic cleanups were often not done right the first time and left residents no assurance that their well water was safe to drink or that their basements were not collecting poisonous fumes.”

Bennett said that similar policies enacted on a national level would “eviscerate” the effectiveness of the country’s public health and environmental laws. That should not imply, however, the Bennett and the nonpartisan PEER are cheering instead for President Obama. PEER has tracked Obama’s track record, too, and from rapidly expanding oil and gas drilling on public lands to taking the wolf off the endangered species list, PEER says the Obama administration is not as green as it may claim to be.

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