Boston -- Citizens seeking to challenge decisions by the state Department of Environmental Protection must pass a pre-screening by a political appointee of the Romney Administration in order to proceed, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
With no notice to the parties or to the public, the Romney Administration, effective Tuesday, January 20, 2004, shut down the Office of Administrative Appeals, located in the state's Environmental Secretariat. New environmental appeals will be "screened" by the DEP Commissioner, a Romney appointee, who will decide which appeals, if any, should be assigned to a judge.
"This move is breathtaking in its audacity -- Governor Romney's actions put enforcement of anti-pollution laws against his political contributors and supporters solely at his discretion," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former enforcement attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Citizens will need the permission of DEP in order to challenge its actions."
This new pre-screening procedure only applies to new cases, but the closure of the Office of Administrative Appeals may disrupt the disposition of more than 350 pending environmental appeals. Current appeals involve projects worth several hundred million dollars, including the proposed Greenbush Line restoration along Massachusetts' south shore; the Blue Hills water storage project in Quincy and the extension of sewer and water lines to Plum Island.
On a daily basis, citizens and businesses, as well as environmental organizations, file appeals of DEP decisions or actions on matters ranging from enforcement of wetlands protection laws to violation of air quality rules. Previously, these matters were handled by administrative law judges who are supposed to be independent of DEP. Under the new rules, DEP will initially handle appeals against its own actions. If the DEP Commissioner deems a case worthy of adjudication, he can refer the matter to the Division of Administrative Law Appeals, where the judges have no protection from arbitrary termination or interference from political appointees.
"In the name of streamlining, the Romney Administration has taken a giant step back towards the spoils system where the incumbent party is free to reward friends and punish enemies regardless of the public interest or evenhanded administration of justice," Bennett added.