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Romney veto puts agency in doubt

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online.

By Shawn Regan
Staff Writer

BOSTON -- A 14-year-old agency that helped rebuild Malden Mills into a more environmentally friendly company after a 1995 fire has become the latest victim of Gov. Mitt Romney's budget feud with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute -- an independent agency based at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell campus that helps private companies throughout the state improve their manufacturing processes -- is likely to close unless it is rescued by Beacon Hill lawmakers today or tomorrow, said Director Kenneth Geiser.

In addition to helping manufacturing companies like Malden Mills of Lawrence improve air emissions, the agency is responsible for towns using fewer pesticides to control mosquitoes, restaurants using fewer chemicals to clean their kitchens, hair salons using more environmentally friendly hairspray and dyes, and researchers developing mercury-free products, Geiser said.

Locally, the agency has worked with two metals manufacturers and Lucent Technologies in North Andover, Family Services Inc. in Lawrence, and the Merrimack Valley Environmental Coalition.

Romney initially wanted to give the agency the same $1.6 million as last year, and the Legislature countered with $1.3 million. But the governor vetoed the whole program, shocking agency officials and their supporters

"I think it must be an oversight. It doesn't make any sense," said Geiser, who spent yesterday at the Statehouse asking lawmakers to override the veto and save the program.

"There are 17 full-time staff holding their breath to see if they still have a job," Geiser said of the institute's employees.

The agency, which Geiser said has worked with more than 700 businesses and trained more than 900 workers in environmental protection practices, is funded through a separate line item in the UMass budget.

Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said the governor vetoed the money because the Legislature sent him a budget that is $200 million in the red.

"If the Legislature accepted a few more of the governor's reforms, the cuts would not have been necessary," Feddeman said of $201 million in Romney vetoes. "If the Legislature would have accepted his reform to combine the MassTurnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department, for instance, we could have saved $213 million and avoided all the veto cuts."

Feddeman said UMass officials can use some of the university's $350 million budget to pay for the environmental agency if they believe it is worth saving.

The agency was formed under the Toxics Use Reduction Act of 1989, which requires companies to meet recommendations for safe use and disposal of hazardous chemicals and waste.

Companies that don't adhere to the law can be fined by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the agency. Without the agency, its supporters say, companies will no longer have the services they need to comply with the law.

Elaine H. Keough, a spokeswoman for UMass-Lowell, said the university isn't ready to give up on the program if its state funding is eliminated, but can't imagine how the school would find any extra money.

"The Legislature just cut our budget by 20 percent, so I don't understand how (Romney) expects the university to pick up a program that's been independently funded for over a decade," she said.

Yesterday, the Legislature began considering overrides to $201 million in spending vetoes handed down by Romney last week. The debate is expected to continue through at least tomorrow.

Essex County lawmakers who have signed on to support overriding the governor's veto and funding the institute include Reps. Joyce Spiliotis, D-Peabody, David M. Torrisi, D-North Andover, William Lantigua, I-Lawrence, Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and Sen. Susan C. Tucker, D-Andover.