Governor LePage to Poor Families in Rural Maine: "Let Them Drink Arsenic"


You can’t taste it, smell it or see it, but what you don’t know can hurt you. An estimated 150,000 rural Mainers are slowly being poisoned by arsenic in their drinking water drawn from private wells. This silent public health crisis robs our youth of intelligence and causes skin, bladder and lung cancer.

Yet only about 45% of Maine households with wells have tested their drinking water for arsenic and other health-threatening contaminants from natural sources such as uranium, manganese, radon and fluoride. Statewide, as many as 1 in 5 wells may produce water that’s unsafe to drink, although in some “hot spots” the danger rate is much higher.

This health impact falls disproportionately on lower income, rural families. People in the most rural counties of Maine earn less than 80% of the national per capita income. And 21% of the state’s children live in poverty. They aren’t any less deserving of safe water than the affluent or those on public water supplies.

That’s why the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a modest Healthy Maine goal of improving the well testing rate to 65% by 2020, and urging water treatment where needed to protect the health of rural Maine families.

It’s infuriating, but not surprising, that Maine Governor Paul LePage vetoed bipartisan legislation aimed at improving testing and treatment of private residential drinking water wells. LD 1162 was championed by its sponsor Rep. Drew Gattine (D-Westbrook) and Representatives Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough), Christine Burstein (D-Lincolnville), Gary Hilliard (R-Belgrade); Senators Anne Haskell (D-Portland), Earle McCormick (R-W. Gardiner) and Amy Volk (R-Scarborough), among many others.

Unfortunately, the vote to override the Governor’s veto fell just short of the two-thirds needed to tackle this serious health threat. The bill faced no formal opposition. However, conservative ideologues led by Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) and Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Auburn) argued that government has no useful role in protecting public health, and that people should be left alone to use the Yellow Pages to find private sector solutions.

The bill would have provided a source of state funding for educational outreach to increase public awareness and motivate people to test their wells. Funded through a modest fee on state lab tests, the bill enjoyed broad support from businesses engaged in water testing and treatment. In his veto message, the Governor claimed the bill was “unnecessary” and that it would “impose fees to support work that is already being done”.  Much of that work was supported by a two-year $300,000 federal grant to the Maine CDC.

Last weekend, the Maine Sunday Telegram exposed the shocking hypocrisy of the LePage Administration. The Department of Health and Human Services actually denied the request of Maine CDC to apply for renewal of the federal grant.  After spending two years building up the infrastructure to effectively reach rural Mainers, federal funding will come to an abrupt halt at the end of August, thanks to this political decision by the LePage Administration. In a further self-defeating gesture, this investigative report revealed that the Department had prohibited the use of federal funds to pay for water test kits to distribute to concerned well owners.

The end result: no state funding, no federal funding, no real progress in meeting the state’s health goal.

You’d think that safe drinking water would be up there with motherhood and apple pie. The Strategy Center’s Emma Halas-O’Connor called this “a case of political ideology trumping public health”. It’s just the latest in a series of efforts by the LePage Administration to dismantle Maine’s public health system, even if that means leaving federal dollars on the table.

But their zeal for privatizing public health will simply ensure that more people are sick and struggling to succeed in society. Free markets need full information to operate effectively. How can we prompt investment in water treatment if people don’t know their well is contaminated?  And it’s hard to motivate people to test their well if they can’t see, taste or smell the problem, especially if they’re struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. Public health education and ensuring equal access to safe drinking water remains a proper role for government, not the private sector. 

These actions of the Governor and his agency spell out a shameful strategy: “let them drink arsenic.”  Instead, we strongly agree with Portland Press Herald editorial from this week: “That’s the wrong approach for an issue that has an impact on health care and education costs, to say nothing of the quality of life for many Mainers.”

That’s why we’ll continue to work hard for drinking water justice for rural Mainers.