AUGUSTA, Maine — About half of all Mainers rely on private wells for water. But the underlying bedrock produces toxic chemicals such as arsenic at levels deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee is considering a bill that would increase testing of private wells and access to filtration systems for households with contaminated water. But how the bill would be funded is generating opposition.
The presence of naturally occurring arsenic in Maine's well water isn't new. But the problem, says bill sponsor and Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, is that not enough people in Maine test for arsenic.
"Many of our towns are hot spots, where nearly half of all wells contain unsafe arsenic levels," he says. "Some wells contain 30-50 times the safety threshold — levels found to cause skin, bladder and lung cancer."
A study by the U.S. Geological Survey found elevated arsenic levels in Maine more widespread than previously thought. It also found large differences in concentrations from well to well, even within the same town. Dr. Deborah Rice, who spoke at the public hearing on behalf of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, says aside from arsenic's risk as a carcinogen, it's also linked to intellectual deficits.
"The most common outcome was IQ, with deficits documented in numerous studies," she says.
A 2014 study by researchers at Columbia University found that Maine children who were exposed to greater than 5 micrograms of arsenic per liter of household well water showed an IQ loss of five to six points. To make matters worse, says Dr. Gail Carlson, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College, the current EPA standard for allowable levels of arsenic is 10 micrograms per liter.
"EPA recently revised and reported arsenic may be 17 times more potent a human carcinogen than previously believed," she says.
Arsenic is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, which can make it challenging to convince homeowners to test their normal-tasting drinking water. The proposed bill would establish a fund for outreach and education through a $5 fee on water tests.
But once a homeowner discovers an issue, there's another challenge: the cost of treating it. Republican Rep. Gary Hilliard is co-sponsor of the bill and a developer.
"I can tell you without reservation there are hundreds of folks in central Maine who know they have water-quality problems but do not test due to financial concerns relating to the cost of the test or system installation," he says.
Home filtration systems can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. The bill would provide financial assistance to low-income Mainers by assessing a 3 percent charge on water filtration systems. But that's drawing opposition from water testing companies.
"It is totally unfair to ask a single industry made up of a few small businesses to pay the costs associated with funding of water treatment systems who could not afford them," says Michael Gelberg, president of Air and Water Quality in Freeport and Ellsworth.
Gelberg, like other representatives from water testing companies who testified, says he's all in favor of safe drinking water. But tacking a 3 percent fee on the price of installing a water filtration system would cut a gaping hole into his tight profit margin.
"As a typical water treatment contractor, our net profit on an installation can often be less than six percent," he says. "Therefore, the maximum fee proposed could represent 50 percent of the profit on the job."
Some well installers, like Ike Goodwin of Goodwin Well and Water, say other issues, such as the lack of a standard, statewide water test should be addressed to help consumers.
"There needs to be one set of water tests that a Maine homeowner can have done, and they know when they're done that their water is safe," he says.
The Health and Human Services Committee will hash out whether to change the funding source in a future work session. In the meantime, experts recommend that homeowners on private wells get their water tested every three to five years.