September 23, 2017
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Maine House backs test fee to fund push against arsenic in private wells

By Michael Shepherd, BDN Staff
Bill Trotter | BDN file | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN file | BDN
Joseph Larson (left) talks with Frances Jimenez (center) and Jack Martell of Environmental Health Strategy Center about the presence of arsenic in local residential wells in Blue Hill in a 2015 file photo.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to fund additional testing and education on chemicals in private well water, signaling a potential deal on the issue nearly two years after Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a similar bill.

The bill is set to be the Legislature’s signature response to the problem of arsenic and other chemicals in Maine wells. A 2012 study from Columbia University said one in 10 Mainers could be drinking from wells contaminated with naturally occurring chemicals in groundwater.

Arsenic is a carcinogen and a five-year study from Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire released in 2014 that looked at 272 elementary school students exposed to arsenic in Kennebec County found that exposure to arsenic could lower IQ levels on a test.

That study led to calls for legislative action. The Legislature added $200,000 in the two-year state budget passed in 2015 to pay for remediation in low-income households.

However, LePage vetoed a bill in 2015 to provide a steady funding stream for outreach efforts. The same year, the Republican governor’s administration also didn’t re-apply for a federal grant that funded well tests and outreach.

This year’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, would place a $10 fee on well water tests at a state-run laboratory, creating a fund that the Legislature’s fiscal office estimates will provide $53,000 per year as of 2018 to pay for additional testing and education.

Vachon’s bill passed by a 117-25 margin in an initial House vote on Tuesday, with only Republicans opposed. LePage’s 2015 veto was upheld by just four votes in the House.

Rep. Gary Hilliard, R-Belgrade, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the administration’s rejection of the federal grant has left outreach on arsenic “at an all-time low.” In his town, 32 percent of wells tested by the state have exceeded federal guidelines for levels of arsenic public drinking water.

“It’s time we step up and fix this issue once and for all for the benefit of the people of Maine,” he said.

But Republican opposition looms. The LePage administration testified against the bill in April, saying it would add “administrative burden” and noting existing outreach efforts.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said on the House floor that while he’d support funding increased outreach in the two-year state budget, he didn’t agree with placing a new fee on tests.

“I cannot support this measure because I think that it actually punishes people who are, in fact, doing the right thing by asking to have their well water tested,” he said.

 


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