Maine Legislature Overrides Governor’s Veto and Passes Safe Drinking Water Law
AUGUSTA, Maine, June 19, 2017—In a major victory for bipartisan lawmaking, the Maine Legislature today overrode the governor’s veto of safe drinking water legislation. New law will begin this fall to help boost water testing and protect thousands of rural Maine families from the silent epidemic of arsenic-contaminated well water.
“It's a great day for Maine when legislators—Republican, Democrats, and Independents, alike—join together to protect the health of rural Mainers and prevent lifelong challenges to their children's learning and success,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and president of its action partner, Prevent Harm.
The Maine House overrode the governor's veto by 113-33, to approve LD 454, “An Act to Ensure Safe Drinking Water for Maine Families." The Senate voted unanimously to override, 35-0.
In 2015, a similar bill failed to win an override of the governor’s veto.
Arsenic contamination of well water in Maine has created a public health crisis. Arsenic causes bladder, lung, and skin cancer, and harms the developing brains of children, threatening their ability to learn and become successful.
The new safe drinking water law will help Maine families like Wendy Brennan’s. Brennan, a mother of two and resident of Mt. Vernon, discovered through a public health study that her well water contained nearly three times EPA’s safety limit for arsenic.
“I was completely unaware the water I gave my two daughters everyday was contaminated with arsenic. Every time I handed my babies that cup, I was handing them poison,” Brennan testified at a public hearing in April about the pending drinking water bill.
An estimated one in eight drinking water wells contains arsenic above the federal safety standard, leaving 100,000 Maine people with unsafe water to drink. Yet less than half of residents have tested their wells for arsenic, far below the official state goal.
Rep. Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough), the lead sponsor of the bill, said, “The widespread support for the passage of LD 454 by the House and Senate is an assuring acknowledgment of Maine’s far-reaching problem with arsenic in our well water and lawmakers’ strong desire to get the word out to their constituents across the state: If you have a well, test it!”
The new law will boost the number of Maine households testing their water for arsenic by establishing a Private Well Safe Drinking Water Fund, through which the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) will do outreach and education to raise awareness about the problem. The new law will also direct the Maine CDC to create a simpler recommendation for a water test that residents should get every three to five years.
Research has shown that a combination of direct mail, social media, and various public service announcements can significantly increase the number of people testing and treating their well water. The Maine CDC was engaging in these tactics until two years ago, when LePage Administration officials did not permit Maine CDC to reapply for a federal grant to support the programs. The Fund established by the new law will allow the agency to return to routine outreach work, and can be supplemented by additional grant funds down the road, should the Department of Health and Human Services choose to apply for them.
The bill was supported by both public health advocates and members of the water testing business community.
"Kudos to the public health community for convincing our legislators that action is needed to protect Maine kids from arsenic in well water,” said Dr. Sydney Sewall, a Maine pediatrician.
"I know firsthand how important it is to ensure that all the water we consume is, in fact, safe. I also know how significant it is to educate and to ensure that the people of Maine understand the benefits of testing," said Beau Mears, CEO of Maine-based Northeast Laboratories.
Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Manchester) has noted the issue of arsenic contamination hit close to home, citing the over 50 percent of household wells tested in her town of Manchester, including her own well, that have unsafe levels of arsenic.
"Safe clean drinking water is a basic human right," Bellows said today. "This is a critical step forward in addressing the horrifying levels of arsenic contamination in Maine wells."
When he ran for office last fall, Representative Kent Ackley (I-Monmouth) made a promise to his voters to address the issue of arsenic in drinking water in Monmouth, a town that also has high concentrations of arsenic in the water. "The most cost-effective source of drinking water for rural Mainers is to be able to drink out of their own wells," said Ackley.
For her part, Wendy Brennan is relieved that as a result of the law, other families in her community will be able to educate and protect themselves.
“We need to give our children the best that we can,” Brennan said, reacting to the law’s passage. “I still talk to people in our community who don’t know that there could be arsenic in their wells. How can people treat something they’re unaware about?”
When it comes to contaminated well water, the burden of harm falls disproportionately on lower-income families. The majority of rural residents in Maine rely on well water. And most of Maine’s rural counties are economically distressed, with childhood poverty exceeding 20 percent. The cost of treatment of unsafe water can easily exceed a family’s ability to pay.
Advocates at Prevent Harm and the Environmental Health Strategy Center say the next step for Maine leaders is to pass legislation ensuring that all Maine families have affordable access to water treatment systems for arsenic-contaminated well water.
“This is about correcting an environmental injustice," said Belliveau. "No one should be denied access to safe drinking water because they can't afford it. Safe drinking water is a basic human right that must be extended to all Mainers, regardless of where they live.”
A sister bill would help low-income families treat well water to protect themselves from arsenic. LD 1263, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Washington), would expand funding for financial assistance to low-income families for well-water treatment.
Pending final passage by the Senate, the LD 1263 has been referred to the Special Appropriations Table, where advocates are working with legislators to find special revenues to allocate $500,000 toward grants for low-income families to access assistance with well-water treatment.
Environmental Health Strategy Center is a public health organization based in Maine and working for healthy people thriving in a healthy economy. We educate and organize people and partners to advocate for two intertwined solutions: reducing humans' exposure to toxic chemicals in food, drinking water, and products, and sustainably manufacturing products that are safe for people and the planet. Together, these solutions can reduce disease and disability linked to toxic chemicals—cancer, infertility, learning disabilities, birth defects, autism, allergies, and asthma—and create a healthy economy based on good-paying jobs and careers created by manufacturing safer, sustainable products. Prevent Harm is our action partner.