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June 20, 2017

State lawmakers override veto to pass safe drinking water law

In strong bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate, the Maine Legislature ​overrode ​the ​governor's​ veto​ of safe drinking water legislation.

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" while the the Senate voted unanimously to override in a 35-0 vote.

The 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 by establishing a Private Well Safe Drinking Water Fund, through which the Maine Center for Disease Control 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.

"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," Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and president of its action partner, Prevent Harm, said in a release.

In 2015, a similar bill failed to win an override of the governor's veto.

Arsenic in wells: a public health crisis

In its release, Environmental Health Strategy Center stated that arsenic​ contamination of​ well water ​in Maine ​has created a public health crisis. Arsenic has been linked to bladder, lung and skin cancer, and is harmful to the developing brains of children, threatening their ability to learn and become successful.

An estimated one in eight drinking water wells in Maine contains arsenic above the federal safety standard, leaving 1​0​0,000 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.

Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, the lead sponsor of the bill, characterized the widespread support for the passage of​ LD 454 as an "assuring acknowledgment of Maine's far-reaching problem with arsenic in our well water and lawmakers' strong desire to get the word out to their constituents across the state: 'If you have a well, test it!'"

Next steps

Advocates at Prevent Harm and the Environmental Health Strategy Center said the next step for Maine leaders is to pass legislation ensuring that all Maine families have affordable access t​o 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."

A sister bill would help low-income families treat well water to protect themselves from arsenic. LD 1263, a resolution sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Washington, would expand funding for financial assistance to low-income families for well-water treatment.

Pending final passage by the Senate, ​LD 1263​ has been referred to the Special Appropriations Table, where ​advocates are working with legislators to find special revenues to allocate $500,000 toward grants for low-income families to access assistance with well-water treatment.

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