AUGUSTA, Maine — Environmental and health groups pressed Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday for a statewide plan to fight arsenic and other chemicals in private well water.
That naturally occurring carcinogen and other toxins are significant public health issues in Maine, where 150,000 people — or one in 10 residents — could be drinking from contaminated wells, according to a Dartmouth College study.
A five-year study from Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire released in 2014 of 272 elementary school students exposed to arsenic in Hallowell, Readfield, Monmouth, Mount Vernon, Manchester and Wayne determined that exposure to low levels of arsenic could lower IQ levels on a test.
That prompted calls for action in the Maine Legislature, which added $200,000 in the state budget passed last year for grants to low-income families for remediating wells.
But two actions by the Republican governor’s administration irked advocates: LePage vetoed a 2015 bill that would have imposed fees on water tests at a state laboratory to fund outreach programs and, around the same time, the administration didn’t reapply for a federal grant that funded free tests and other efforts to boost testing.
The Wednesday letter from the Environmental Health Strategy Center and health groups, including the Maine Public Health Association, calls for a statewide plan with a timeline and benchmarks to ensure low-income families can access remediation or treatment.
Mike Belliveau, executive director of Environmental Health Strategy Center, said in a statement that “government leadership is essential to addressing this silent and preventable epidemic in Maine’s rural areas” and absent a plan, the LePage administration is “allowing horrific health consequences to children and families.”
However, the administration has dismissed criticism along these lines before.
LePage called the testing bill “unnecessary” when he vetoed it, citing existing outreach efforts and state survey data saying the number of Mainers who knew their wells had been tested rose from 26.5 percent in 2003 to 45 percent in 2012.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew defended the administration’s rejection of the grant by criticizing the program’s test return rate and saying the government shouldn’t be competing against private firms that test wells for between $30 and $90, calling it “a textbook example of an inefficient, wasteful, unnecessary government project.”
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