October 22, 2011

Well testing grant rejected by state panel

The new review panel is a LePage administration initiative to help prioritize spending, a member says.

A new state review panel rejected 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 Department of Health and Human Services' 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 the 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 in the 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 have been turned down.

One was a request by Andy Smith, the state toxicologist, to apply for a $70,000 federal grant to enhance surveillance of unregulated drinking water.

With geological conditions that have shown high levels of some naturally occurring toxins -- including arsenic, radon and uranium -- Mainers are vulnerable to adverse health effects from drinking well water.

In September, a Kennebec Journal report citing U.S. Geological Survey data showed that 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 residents at risk for health problems.

Pierce said the review panel rejected Smith's request because it felt Maine had made progress in getting people to test their wells.

"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.

"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?" he said.

The decision chafed Steve Taylor, program director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, who said it's a "no brainer" to use federal resources when possible in this era of limited public funding.

"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 that if the grant had been approved, the funding would have run out in two years. Then, he said, the state would have had to cover the cost.

"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," Pierce said.

But 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 affecting the state budget.

Peter Garrett, vice president of Emery & Garrett Groundwater Inc. in Waterville and a consultant on ground water issues from Maine to Georgia, said information campaigns are essential, with so many "hot spots" in Maine.

"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)," he said.

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

"Anything he thinks is important to do, I would say we should do it," Peckenhan said.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Mechele Cooper can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

mcooper@centralmaine.com

 

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