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State Denies Request for Water Grant

October 24, 2011 - Augusta - A new state Department of Health and Human Services review panel nixed a $70,000 grant request that would have funded a public information campaign to promote testing of private wells.

Nearly half of all Mainers get their drinking water from private wells — the highest proportion in the country.

The DHHS Grant Application Review Team, established in March, is a LePage administration initiative to prioritize spending and “make sure every dollar is as effectively and efficiently spent as it can be,” said Chris Pierce, deputy commissioner of finance for DHHS and a member of the panel.

Pierce said LePage believes the cost of administering hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts each year is too high, especially at DHHS. That prompted changes in how the department applies for grants.

He said the review team has considered 52 grant requests since March. Only four were turned down.
One was a request by State Toxicologist Andy Smith to apply for a $70,000 federal grant to enhance surveillance of unregulated drinking water.

With the nation’s highest proportion of well users, and geological conditions that have shown high levels of some naturally occurring toxics — including arsenic, radon and uranium — Mainers are uniquely vulnerable to adverse health effects from drinking well water.

In September, a Kennebec Journal report citing U.S. Geological Survey data showed a high proportion of Kennebec County’s private wells had more arsenic than federal standards allow in public water supplies, with as many as 15,000 county residents at risk for health problems.

While most advocates agree educational programs raise awareness to protect families, they disagree about how to provide that outreach.

Pierce said the committee said no to Smith’s request because it felt Maine had made progress between 2001 and 2009 in getting people to test their wells.

“In those six years we have been able to increase the number of households that examined their wells for arsenic from 23 percent to 50 percent and we thought that we were making significant, steady progress over the course of time,” Pierce said. “As a state, we understand how important this is and this doesn’t diminish the initiative at all. We are looking at all tax dollars. Do we really need another grant?”

But the decision chafed Steve Taylor, program director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, who said it’s a “no brainier” to access federal resources when possible in this era of limited public resources.

“Health effects linked to arsenic not only include damage to the digestive tract and heart, but scientific studies also link arsenic to skin, bladder and lung cancer,” Taylor said Friday. “The health effect of drinking water with arsenic and other contaminants is very serious.”

Pierce said the contract review process “examines every dollar.”

If the grant had been approved, he said, it would ended in two years when the funding ran out. Then, he said, the state would have to pick up the tab.

“If you set up your infrastructure, you’ll be stuck with doing the service,” he said. “It would be entrenched.

“That’s a dangerous way to do business, and it does increase the cost of government.

“Just because someone in Ohio is paying for this, does that make it right? It’s convenient to say ‘it’s federal dollars.’ Usually, it’s not 100 percent federal. Usually it’s 80 (percent federal), 20 (percent state).”

Taylor said the Maine Centers for Disease Control has made much progress in educating the public and increasing awareness, but clearly much more work is needed.

“We’ve got it up to almost 50 percent, but given the seriousness of the possible health impacts, from the public health point of view, why wouldn’t our target be 100 percent?” Taylor said.

Taylor said an obvious course of action would be to accept federal support so Maine could expand its public information campaign, at least for a few years, without having an impact on the state budget.

“The reason the federal government provides grants like this to states is because every state doesn’t have adequate resources to do this kind of work,” he said. “We should let the federal granting agencies decide if the application is appropriate to fund or not.

“Really, all we’re doing by failing to apply is giving that money to another state to do the work.”

Well servicers in Kennebec County back almost any method of testing and advocacy that would lead to greater awareness of well issues.

“Well water in (Maine) homes is not required to be tested at all,” said Peter Garrett, vice president of Emery & Garrett Groundwater Inc. in Waterville and a consultant on ground water issues from Maine to Georgia.

Garrett said information campaigns are essential with so many “hot spots” in Maine for different contaminants.

“So these are particularly important when we’ve been hearing about the distribution of arsenic in well water,” Garrett said. “There’s a hot spot in central Maine, and most people in that area will test. But I don’t know about the rest (of the state).”

DHHS spokesman John Martins said the department has two pending grants totaling more than $1 million that can be used in some ways to inform the public about well testing.

“We got the Environmental Public Health Tracking Public grant, which is competitive, for three years and it covers all sorts of stuff,” Martin said. “We also have the Healthy Home Lead Poisoning Prevention grant. That was $380,000 a year for three years.”

Some say bureaucrats are interfering with knowledgeable scientists and state health officers.

John Peckenhan, assistant director of the George Mitchell Center for Environmental & Watershed Research, said Smith is a source of expertise in this area, and the DHHS review team should have heeded his request.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have a guy of his ability,” Peckenhan said of Smith. “Anything he thinks is important to do, I would say we should do it.”

Smith, who also serves as director of environmental and occupational health programs at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, seemed sanguine about the quashed grant application.

“They have been trying to control the size of state government, and, ‘Here’s a brand new initiative, versus continue with what you’ve been doing’.”

Mechele Cooper, Kennebec Journal, October 2011


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