In a major victory for bipartisan lawmaking, the Maine Legislature today overrode the governor’s veto of safe drinking water legislation. New law will begin this fall to help boost water testing and protect thousands of rural Maine families from the silent epidemic of arsenic-contaminated well water.
“It’s a great day for Maine when legislators—Republican, Democrats, and Independents, alike—join together to protect the health of rural Mainers and prevent lifelong challenges to their children’s learning and success,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and president of its action partner, Prevent Harm.
The Maine House overrode the governor’s veto by 113-33, to approve LD 454, “An Act to Ensure Safe Drinking Water for Maine Families.” The Senate voted unanimously to override, 35-0.
The new safe drinking water law will help Maine families like Wendy Brennan’s. Brennan, a mother of two and resident of Mt. Vernon, discovered through a public health study that her well water contained nearly three times EPA’s safety limit for arsenic.
I was completely unaware the water I gave my two daughters everyday was contaminated with arsenic. Every time I handed my babies that cup, I was handing them poison. – Wendy Brennan, mother of two
“I was completely unaware the water I gave my two daughters everyday was contaminated with arsenic. Every time I handed my babies that cup, I was handing them poison,” Brennan testified at a public hearing in April about the pending drinking water bill.
An estimated one in eight drinking water wells contains arsenic above the federal safety standard, leaving 100,000 Maine people with unsafe water to drink. Yet less than half of residents have tested their wells for arsenic, far below the official state goal.
The new law will boost the number of Maine households testing their water for arsenic by establishing a Private Well Safe Drinking Water Fund, through which the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) will do outreach and education to raise awareness about the problem. The new law will also direct the Maine CDC to create a simpler recommendation for a water test that residents should get every three to five years.
Safe drinking water is a basic human right that must be extended to all Mainers, regardless of where they live. – Mike Belliveau, president of Prevent Harm and executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center
The bill was supported by both public health advocates and members of the water testing business community.
“Kudos to the public health community for convincing our legislators that action is needed to protect Maine kids from arsenic in well water,” said Dr. Sydney Sewall, a Maine pediatrician.
For her part, Wendy Brennan is relieved that as a result of the law, other families in her community will be able to educate and protect themselves.
“We need to give our children the best that we can,” Brennan said, reacting to the law’s passage. “I still talk to people in our community who don’t know that there could be arsenic in their wells. How can people treat something they’re unaware about?”
When it comes to contaminated well water, the burden of harm falls disproportionately on lower-income families. The majority of rural residents in Maine rely on well water. And most of Maine’s rural counties are economically distressed, with childhood poverty exceeding 20 percent. The cost of treatment of unsafe water can easily exceed a family’s ability to pay.
Advocates at Prevent Harm and the Environmental Health Strategy Center say the next step for Maine leaders is to pass legislation ensuring that all Maine families have affordable access to water treatment systems for arsenic-contaminated well water.
“This is about correcting an environmental injustice,” said Belliveau. ”No one should be denied access to safe drinking water because they can’t afford it. Safe drinking water is a basic human right that must be extended to all Mainers, regardless of where they live.”