Growing up on the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s reservation, Cyril Francis knew to never drink the water.
It was obvious when the water ran tan or even muddy brown, reminiscent of the bottom of Boyden Lake, the source of the Passamaquoddy Water District. But even when it runs clear and after millions of dollars of investment into a treatment facility, Francis, 63, said she does not use the local water except for showering, laundry and sometimes dishes.
Even that comes with unsettling issues, as Francis found out during a recent doctor’s appointment. After getting her blood drawn, she said the nurse applied white gauze to the drawing site — only for it to come away brown.
“I had just taken a shower,” Francis said. “I couldn’t freaking believe it.”
The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik has tried for years to get a new source of water for the district serving the Down East reservation and the city of Eastport as it has struggled with fluctuating water quality. A review by an MIT student in 2018 found that the public water had a higher level of certain carcinogens than well water, but was also safer by other measures.
The state says the water is safe, but a prevailing distrust of the water remains. Many tribal members have long filled water jugs at a private well next to a former Robbinston church, but it ran dry this summer due to drought. There have been few coronavirus cases in eastern Maine, but the water quality is adding to concerns in a population with many who have pre-existing health conditions as Maine tribes pursue a sovereignty effort before the Legislature.
“I don’t know what to say anymore,” said Chief Marla Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik. “[Water district officials] don’t care about the water. They say the water is safe. No, it’s not.”
In other places, tribes looking to establish their own wells would usually work with the federal government. But Maine’s relationship with tribes is governed by a 1980 settlement that requires tribes to also work with cities and towns. That law is the subject of a massive effort to increase tribal sovereignty, but it’s unclear if the overhaul will pass this year.
The Passamaquoddy tribe identified exploratory well sites in 2014 on land in Perry they pay taxes on, Vice Chief Maggie Dana said. But the town passed an ordinance preventing permits from being awarded if it found the proposal would adversely affect local water supplies.
The issue with the water stems from the sediments in Boyden Lake that are easily stirred up in windy and wet weather, said William Dawson, the chief engineer with the drinking water program within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
An increased flow can cause the water to become turbid and carry high levels of organic material. When those materials interact with the chlorine used to clean the water, the chlorine can break down into byproducts called trihalomethanes, which can cause liver, kidney and central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer when a person is exposed to it over time, according to the state.
Dawson said the water treatment facility has seen $14.9 million worth of upgrades funded by a state revolving fund over the last 22 years. Currently, the water is within federal environmental regulatory limits, he said. But that was not the case in 2019, when the district saw three instances of trihalomethanes in excess of 80 parts per billion per liter. Rates also exceeded the limit in 2017 and 2005, according to documents provided by the tribe.
The health and psychological effects of not having access to reliably clean water is hard to quantify, said Lisa Sockabasin, the director of programs and external affairs for Wabanaki Public Health, the health provider for Maine tribes, which has been delivering water and other necessities to elders in the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes during the pandemic.
Maine tribes in general were found to have had higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and other comorbidities and less access to cancer screenings, according to a 2010 Department of Health and Human Services health survey, but those stem from a series of factors, she said.
“It’s a feeling of, ‘I am not worthy of what everybody else is worthy of,’ and I worry about that loss of hope and worth when all people have is access to dirty, smelly water,” Sockabasin said.
Potential solutions to the issue could be years away. The water district has no plans to overhaul the supply. Richard Clark of Eastport, who chairs its board of trustees, defended the water quality by saying no test has “ever proven that the water isn’t safe to drink.”
“We’d be told to give a boil order every day,” he said. “There’s no way that we could sell water we couldn’t drink. The state would shut you down in a split second.”
A regional spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said there are plans to conduct a feasibility study early next year to consider alternatives, including enhanced treatment of the current water source and exploration of new water sources.
Dawson said the state has recently created a grant program to help address small public water systems struggling with health concerns, which the Passamaquoddy Water District has been invited to apply for. The state has also offered to fund an alternative groundwater supply study, but the tribe says the issue is a good example of their need for more sovereignty.
“Our water sovereignty is restricted,” said Maggie Dana, the vice chief. “We have an answer, we have a resolution, but we’re blocked all the time.”
Correction: A previous version of this article contained incorrect details about the well where Passamaquoddy people access water. It is at the site of a former church on private land.