AUGUSTA — A federally funded program aimed at increasing well water testing in rural Maine will end in August after the state didn’t reapply for a grant, drawing criticism from advocates calling for increased public outreach.

The two-year, $300,000 award, won by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, has been the department’s only steady stream of funding to promote testing. That money funded programs in Franklin, Hancock, Washington and Aroostook counties that did outreach on chemicals including arsenic, a carcinogen occurring naturally in much of Maine’s bedrock, particularly in central and Downeast areas.

But the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, changed its tune on the award: After a report from State Toxicologist Andrew Smith said the program gave 210 free well water testing kits to Maine residents in the first year – 20 percent of which were returned to laboratories for testing – the Maine Department of Health and Human Services told partnerships to stop handing kits out.

Now it says it didn’t reapply for the award because parts of the program were inefficient.

“Whether we are talking about federal or state money, Mainers should be able to expect that their state government will use all taxpayer dollars sparingly and only when absolutely necessary,” said David Sorensen, a DHHS spokesman.

‘TRUMPING PUBLIC HEALTH’

But Emma Halas-O’Connor, a coordinator with the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a group that fights toxic chemicals, called it “a case of political ideology trumping public health.”

“I find that pretty disappointing,” she said of the grant’s end. “That was the one source of funding that was going toward outreach and education for people to get their wells tested.”

Statewide, 150,000 people could be drinking from wells with higher concentrations of arsenic than those allowed by the federal government in public drinking water, according to a Dartmouth College study. In Kennebec County, 29 percent of private wells tested by the state from 2005 to 2009 had higher concentrations than the federal standard, more than any other Maine county.

The issue got a lot of attention in 2014, when a five-year study of 272 students in grades 3 through 5 at Kennebec County schools was released by Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire, finding that exposure to even low levels of arsenic in water could lower IQ levels. That led to calls for an increased state role in testing.

NO DEDICATED FUNDING STREAM

The state, through DHHS, publishes materials on how to get wells tested on contaminants found in wells, but there’s no dedicated funding stream for outreach. This year, the Maine Legislature passed a proposal from Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, that would have funded education by imposing fees on tests conducted at a state-run laboratory.

But legislators failed to override a veto from LePage, who noted in a letter that between 2003 and 2012, the number of Mainers who reported knowing whether their well had been tested increased from 26.5 percent to 45 percent and said the bill would assess fees “to support work that is already being done.” The department said it will continue to do outreach work with existing resources.

Sorensen criticized the 20 percent return rate on the free tests given out under the grant. The program was “costly and inefficient” and “taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize, through grants, other people’s well water testing kits,” he said.

But Halas-O’Connor said the return rate was good for door-to-door work, and Smith’s grant report said between June and September 2014, partners promoted testing to 500 residents by holding and promoting events. After one news article, 55 people called the state asking about testing.

Maria Donahue, community health director at Healthy Acadia, which administers the grant in Hancock and Washington counties, called the work “really important.” She said the group was given $10,000 by a private foundation to do well water programming, but it’s not an ongoing source, so that effort will soon end. Gattine called the administration’s move on well testing “really unsettling.”

“I wanted to move us ahead. When my bill got rejected, I thought we’d be in steady state,” he said. “Now, when I hear this, it sounds like we’re moving backwards.”

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

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