Daily Brief: Dead mud, beer brotherhoods and Augusta, Maine’s ‘most dangerous’ town

Good morning from Augusta, where a busy day is brewing with morning House and Senate sessions followed by an afternoon of committee work. 

Many eyes will be cast toward the sea today with the release of a long-toiled-upon report about how ocean acidification is affecting the Gulf of Maine and what we should do about it. A 16-member panel of fishermen, aquaculturists, scientists, lawmakers and government officials is due to release a report to the public during a press conference later this morning. 

Ocean acidification might be a foreign concept for some, especially here on the East Coast, which lags the Pacific Northwest in turning resources toward the problem. Scientists say the acidity of the water in the Gulf of Maine has increased 30-fold in the past 200 years and is especially susceptible because of the gulf’s above-average influx of fresh water. Carbon dioxide, which results from the burning of fossil fuels, is the main culprit, though pollution from inland sources is also a factor.

So why should you care? Acidic water eats away at shells and any animal with its skeleton on the outside. Think clams, lobsters and shrimp, and how disastrous the loss of those already pressured economies would be for Maine. Marine biologists have already been reporting a correlation between higher acidity levels in seawater and lower shellfish landings and reproductive problems at aquaculture facilities. They even have a name for stretches of the coast where acidification has done its insidious work: “Dead muds.” 

Acidification is an emerging global problem that probably demands a global solution, so it’s unclear what can be done at the state level. The environmental community in Maine is on board, as is Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who has proposed a bill in Congress to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct a broader study of the problem. We’ll learn the extent of what can be done later this morning when recommendations from the study are released. — Christopher Cousins

Building beer brotherhoods

As the senator representing the city where drink looms larger than anywhere else in Maine, Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland is in an interesting position.

A mead-making facility, distillery, and Maine’s largest brewery all call Portland home, not to mention several smaller breweries and the state’s singular food-and-drink neighborhood, the Old Port. That means booze is big business for Alfond’s district, so bills to adjust state laws regarding the production and consumption of beer, wine and spirits regularly originate from his office. It makes sense for his district, but can make Alfond a target of political opponents looking to prove a point.

This year, he has a bill aimed at boosting Maine’s craft brewing industry by allowing large brewing facilities to play host to up to nine smaller ones.

The test case for this sort of arrangement was the deal struck between Peak Organic Brewing Company, a small brewer in Portland, and Shipyard Brewing Company, the largest brewery in the state. Both companies are based in Portland. When Peak Brewing first started, Alfond said during a committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, they didn’t have a brewing facility that fit their needs. So they approached Shipyard, who allowed the upstart to use its facilities during off-peak production hours.

A legal snag was discovered wherein federal law allowed this kind of relationship, but state law didn’t. Two years ago, Alfond proposed a bill to make it legal, and it passed unanimously in the Legislature. Now, Alfond wants to increase the number of tenant brewers that can be hosted by a larger facility from one to nine. He says it will help expand Maine’s already booming beer industry. A 2014 study by the Maine Brewers’ Guild found that 35 breweries in Maine planned to increase production by 36 percent that year and triple production within five years.

“Shipyard has been approached by other breweries to enter into a similar arrangement, but are limited by statute to only one tenant brewer,” Alfond said. “Maine’s craft brewing industry has exploded over the last several years, and passing this bill is another important step.” — Mario Moretto

Gallup says Maine still leans Democrat

Massachusetts and Maryland are the most Democratic states in the county and Utah and Wyoming are the most Republican, according to new polling by Gallup, which found Maine closer to the middle of the pack. In liberal New England, where four state cracked the top 10 most Democratic, Gallup found that Maine is one of six states in the U.S. that lean Democratic, as opposed to be solidly Democratic or “competitive.”

That Maine still leans Democrat might come as a surprise, even though the state has tilted left for decades. Republicans have increased their presence in the Legislature — especially in 2010, when the GOP took over majorities in both chambers and in 2014, when they re-took the Senate — and enjoyed solid victories by Gov. Paul LePage and 2nd District Congressman Bruce Poliquin.

The fact remains, however, that when it really matters from a national perspective — ie. during presidential elections — Maine has been reliably Democratic for decades. — Christopher Cousins

Combatting child hunger

The Task Force to End Student Hunger will present a report today that will contain recommendations about how to ensure Maine students are well fed. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that required local school districts to create federally funded summer food service programs — or take explicit public votes not to. The bill, LD 1353, was vetoed by Gov. LePage but the veto was overridden.

The lengthy report will be presented to the Legislature’s Education Committee this afternoon. Whether it will lead to the passage of more student hunger bills or end up on a shelf somewhere among dozens or hundreds of other legislative reports remains to be seen. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Augusta: ‘Most dangerous’

A real estate blog called Movoto used FBI crime data this week to find the most dangerous towns and cities in Maine, which is the country’s safest state, at least when it comes to violent crime. The blog measures crimes per capita as opposed to total crimes, which would have skewed the results toward larger towns and cities. Through that lens, Augusta topped the list for Maine with one out of every 15 residents falling victim to a crime in 2013.

Those numbers don’t include unfunded mandates imposed on communities by the Legislature. — Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.