The Clean Water Act, a cause for hope and celebration over the past 45 years, has been beset by deliberate, focused budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Actions to protect clean water and clean air have done more to improve human health than many medical advances. We depend on state and federal systems to protect us from unsafe water. The gains we’ve made for Maine’s environment and public health are in jeopardy from changes in Washington, D.C.
As a physician, I’m concerned for the health of our residents and visitors.
For example, the EPA is in the process of repealing the 2015 Clean Water Rule, which shields the nation’s rain-dependent streams and wetlands from toxic pollution. About half of Maine’s drinking water comes from surface water that is supported by these small, protected streams.
Many of us remember that the Androscoggin River was once considered the poster child for polluted bodies of water in the United States. It was so contaminated that it was said that the paint on buildings turned black and blistered and that the smell was so bad that residents of Lewiston started moving out of town. By the 1960s, fish and aquatic life from Berlin to Brunswick were unable to live in the river, where dissolved oxygen levels often measured at or near zero.
In 1972, Maine Sen. Ed Muskie helped draft the Clean Water Act that was responsible for helping clean up the Androscoggin through funding and industry mandates. Pollution on parts of the river remains a problem, but thanks to the Clean Water Act, it is nowhere near as severe as it had been.
The Clean Water Rule repeal and EPA budget cuts are bad news for Maine, which depends heavily on federal funds to maintain its clean water systems. The proposed EPA budget cuts would eliminate millions of dollars for protecting Maine’s environment and water systems, including reductions in coastal management grants that help communities adapt to more intense storms, clean water state revolving funds that help repair and build storm water and sewage treatment infrastructure, and funds to clean up Superfund sites. Maine has 16 Superfund sites on the EPA’s national priority list.
As Maine grows and develops, our needs are only going to increase.
Recent analysis shows that the water quality of many of Maine’s lakes is on a downward trend. Pollutant and nutrient runoff into lakes from developed shorelines can create harmful algal blooms that contaminate drinking water sources. Toxic algae can sicken and kill fish, birds, pets, sea mammals and even people. Algal blooms consume oxygen, essentially suffocating living creatures in the water.
Maine’s beaches rank near the bottom for water quality compared with other coastal states. This is a very real public health issue. Bacteria in sea water carried in raw sewage, animal waste and storm-water runoff can make people sick. The EPA has previously estimated that up to 3.5 million people a year in the U.S. become ill from contact with sewer overflows. Swimming in contaminated water can cause rashes, stomach flu, hepatitis and other illnesses.
Outbreaks like these are not good public relations for the tourist industry in Maine. Coastal water quality is also essential to Maine’s shellfish industry. Shellfish stocks can become contaminated and cause serious illnesses, a potential economic disaster for the Maine’s shellfish industry.
Weakening clean water protections harms Maine and its people. A healthy environment leads to better health from a medical perspective, but it is also the basis for a healthy economy. Maine depends on its reputation for a clean environment.
Certain interest groups may rail about regulations, but if polluters had been better neighbors, mandates would not have been necessary.
Do you trust corporations to do the right thing on their own? I don’t.
I urge you to contact your elected representatives. Tell them you want stronger state and federal protections for our water, that current federal actions to weaken clean water rules and cut funding for clean water programs will place your health and Maine’s economy at risk.
Cutting funding for the EPA directly harms Maine and all us, no matter where we live.
Janis Petzel is a physician. She lives in Islesboro.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.