After over six years with Prevent Harm and the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Emma Halas-O’Connor is departing for law school. She will be sorely missed, but she’s leaving on a high note: In her last weeks here, the Maine Legislature voted to override the Governor’s veto of LD 454, our bill to expand outreach and education around arsenic exposure through well water, and turned that important bill into law.
In this blog post, Emma looks back on the long journey that led to this victory for safe drinking water for all Maine families.
* * *
After two years of campaigning, we’ve scored the first victory for protecting Mainers from arsenic in well water: we passed LD 454, “An Act to Ensure Safe Drinking Water for All Maine Families.”
Because of this law, more Mainers will learn about the risks of arsenic in their water, and understand how important it is to get it tested. The law will generate at least $52,840 per year for a newly-established Safe Drinking Water Fund, which the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) will use to raise awareness about the importance of testing well water, as well as provide funds for well water testing for families who cannot afford it.
Given that less than half of Maine households on well water have tested it for arsenic, that progress is critical.
It’s estimated that over 100,000 Maine people have arsenic-contaminated well water in their homes, at levels above what the US EPA states is acceptable for drinking. Arsenic causes bladder, lung, and skin cancers, and harms children’s developing brains—harm that lasts a lifetime. This new law has the potential to change lives.
We’ve pushed for a law like this for a long time.
In 2015, we saw a similar law defeated when a veto override vote failed. Afterward, we discovered that Governor LePage had directed the Maine CDC not to reapply for federal funding for outreach and education about arsenic in well water.
Thanks to the support of our allied partner organizations, supportive legislators, and members, we were able to use that temporary set-back to quickly strategize and reorganize.
Last summer, our communications staff created and mailed a safe drinking water guide to all candidates for the 128th Maine Legislature, asking every one of them to pledge to support safe drinking water.
Next, Emily Postman, our talented organizer who is now stepping into the role of lead state policy advocate here, joined me in training a team of incredible interns to become public health organizers. Driving more than 4,650 miles throughout the state, they held community events across 11 Maine counties, in 31 towns, including meetings where constituents met with legislators who went on to become safe drinking water champions.
At the State House
Following the 2016 election, working with sponsor Rep. Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough), we announced LD 454 at a State House press conference last December.
Families, teachers, and community members spoke, sharing stories of what they had learned—often through their own frightening experiences—about the health impacts of arsenic. For months afterward, these grassroots advocates took time out of their own schedules to drive hundreds of miles, testify at the bill’s hearing, meet with legislators, and speak with reporters.
In May, parents and kids turned out in force with posters and personal testimony for a wonderful Day of Action. LD 454 went on to win strong bipartisan votes for passage in both the House and Senate. This important bill should have then been signed into law.
The Governor vetoed this bill at the last minute, late on a Friday night—leaving us only 48 hours to contact our members to share what happened and urge them to tell their representatives to override the veto.
Emily jumped into action. She organized a phone bank with our interns that began promptly at 9 am on Saturday morning. Over the course of ten hours, and helped along by plenty of delivery pizza, we made calls to our members , while our communications staff sent out an online alert urging members to email their representatives about the veto.
The result? Over 250 calls and emails from constituents to their representatives.
On Monday, we didn’t let up: In Augusta, Emily and I lobbied the legislators who previously supported the bill, and our communications team held up handmade posters for legislators to see just before they entered their chambers.
Years of campaigning, public testimony, calls to legislators, and support from our members all lead to what happened next.
The following Monday morning, more than two thirds of legislators voted to support the bill. The Governor’s veto was overridden with a resounding bipartisan majority of 113 – 33 in the House, and a unanimous 35 – 0 in the Senate.
A strong bipartisan majority of Maine lawmakers voted in favor of proactive efforts to prevent arsenic exposure in Maine communities. With this law, our legislators have acknowledged that our state has a responsibility to protect the health of its citizens, and that starts with the basic health protection of ensuring everyone knows that they need to test their well water.
Of course, this is far from the last step we’ll take to make sure Maine people have clean safe water.
Passing LD 454 into law is an important first step in the campaign to bring safe water to every tap in Maine. Next, we need to address the affordability of safe well water: with water treatment systems costing thousands of dollars, many families cannot pay for the solution after they find out their drinking water has a problem.
We are now within striking distance of passing LD 1263, An Act to Ensure Affordable Safe Drinking Water for Maine Families, which would designate $500,000 to help ensure that low-income families have access to safe water. This bill is extremely close to becoming law: in another series of powerful bipartisan votes, the Maine House and Senate voted to enact LD 1263 last week. Now, this bill is on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.
We’ve come a long way. We passed a new law to boost testing. Next, we’ll continue to fight for safe drinking water for everybody.
We want to thank all of the following people who helped us bring back this bill and pass it into law in 2017:
- We hold the deepest gratitude toward the people who have been directly impacted by unsafe levels of arsenic in their own water, who have been bravely showing up to at the State House to talk with their legislators, testify in a hearing, or speak out at a press conference.
- To all of you who dialed your Representative or Senator over the course of this Legislative Session, thank you. You helped us cut through the noise of a frenzied and contentious political atmosphere, to remind lawmakers what was at stake.
- Thanks to our bipartisan champs in the Legislature: Representative Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough) diligently worked on this bill as its lead sponsor. We also got help from Representative Gary Hilliard (R-Belgrade), Representative Drew Gattine (D-Westbrook), Representative Kent Ackley (I-Monmouth), Senator Amy Volk (R-Scarborough), Senator Joyce Maker (R-Washington), and Senator Shenna Bellows (D-Monmouth).
- Thanks to the broad coalition of public health organizations, businesses, and advocates who helped us win a strong public hearing and earn strong bipartisan support.