Access to clean and safe water is a fundamental human right. Maine is unique in its geology as it offers an abundance of freshwater from rivers, lakes and groundwater sources. Water is critical for supporting the state’s fishing and lobster industry, providing recreational opportunities for residents and visitors and maintaining the health of local ecosystems.
According to the Maine Division of Environmental and Community Health, 94% of the public water in Maine sources from groundwater (springs and wells), yet 48% of water consumed by the Maine public is sourced from surface water springs (lakes and streams). In the entire state of Maine, only 79 surface water utilities are used as public drinking water supplies. For decades these water sources have faced issues of water insecurity, contamination from PFAs and dioxins and increased cancer risks due to pollution.
Maine citizens at greatest risk to water insecurity are the residents who have called this region home for thousands of years. Citizens of the Wabanaki Confederacy have faced inadequate access to clean water within their reservations for years. When concerns were brought forth to the state of Maine, the tribal citizens’ voices were met with silence. Passamaquoddy tribal leaders expressed how their community has been enduring decades of dirty, non-potable and unsafe drinking water drawn from their local lake, an issue that wouldn’t have prevailed for so long if Maine’s tribal nations were granted sovereignty over their governing lands and water bodies. However, on April 21, 2022, Governor Janet Mills announced the signing of LD 906, a clean water act that provides access to clean drinking water for Passamaquoddy citizens. As stated from the Office of Governor Mills, LD 906 allows citizens of the Passamaquoddy Tribe to seek alternative sources of groundwater on Passamaquoddy tribal territory without state approval. The bill along with other local legislation also sought the installation of a water treatment system to significantly improve water quality for residents of Point Pleasant Reservation and the town of Eastport.
Although the Passamaquoddy have been granted insurance that their community will have access to clean drinking water in the future, the citizens of the Penobscot Nation are left stranded. A bill that would allow the Penobscot Nation to have partial control of the Penobscot River was recently struck down by the supreme court. As stated from the Maine Public, the sovereignty bill, LD 1626, is the highest priority of Wabanaki leaders as it would restore the self-governing rights to the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Houlton Band of Maliseet peoples. The bill also addresses environmental regulation, taxation, land use, criminal justice and hunting and fishing on tribal lands. Governor Mills has long had a position of opposition on the issue of self-governance and the bill is still yet to be passed by the Senate. As the Penobscot Nation has been left with no input as to what happens on their land and surrounding areas, they have been put at more risk for water contamination, as Indian Island is located upstream from the ND Paper Mill in Old Town.
Orono is surrounded by two rivers, the Penobscot and Stillwater. Paper mills and waste facilities around Orono are allowed to dump a certain amount of waste into the Stillwater. As the Stillwater and Penobscot are connected, it leaves our entire island and surrounding islands completely at risk of harmful dioxins. Dioxins are a byproduct from the paper bleaching process at the mills and is a toxic substance that is freely dumped into our river and have been known to cause long-lasting effects in humans and higher cancer rates to citizens of mill towns. The bleaching process can be done with oxygen and peroxide instead of chlorine, the dioxins-producing agent, but it can be assumed chlorine is still used in production for cost-cutting benefits. From the Boothbay Register, they talk of an exposé titled “Mill Town,” published in 2020 by author Kerri Arsenault. Arsenault tells audiences of life growing up in the mill town of Mexico, Maine. Arsenault explains the connection of cancer rates in her hometown and the waste the paper mill produces, and details these processes of paper bleaching and the impact of mill pollution to the surrounding environment and the residents of Mexico.
Not only are dioxins contaminating water sources of Maine, but they also contaminate food, as studies show that 90% of dioxin contamination comes from eating meat, dairy, eggs, fish and shellfish. Dioxin contamination extends past our local water sources as rivers lead to the ocean, and contagion concerns arise within Maine’s lobster, one of our biggest industries and exports. Pregnant women across the U.S. are urged to not consume large amounts of fish and lobster from Maine because of the high dioxin levels.
These outside pollutants severely impact our local water sources by threatening human health. Cancer, for example, is one of the leading causes of death in Maine. According to the Maine government website, 1 in 4 deaths in Maine are caused by cancer. The government will attribute cancer risk factors to tobacco use, physical fitness, radon and arsenic exposure, but the obvious offender to Mainers that our government refuses to recognize is the paper mills’ pollutants in our towns. The paper mill in Old Town has been pouring byproduct waste into the Penobscot river since the 1960s, contaminating one of the primary water sources of our county. Learning this information, I have grown a new fear of living in the town I have called home for the past year. When driving past the paper mill during my commute to campus, I used to hold my breath to avoid the unpleasant odor lingering from production. Now, I hold my breath in fear of cancer-causing chemicals entering my lung. I reflect on my summer spent swimming in the Penobscot and Stillwater, and am petrified at the thought that I may have unintentionally exposed myself to a bitter end. Pollution of dioxins is a dirty secret being tamped, but for those affected it’s a terrifying monster lingering behind shut doors.
With the towns of Orono, Old Town, and Milford sourcing water straight from the rivers, the fear of how pollution of our water source has affected the health of our student body is a frightening thought. We need to hold the town of Orono and Old Town responsible for the contracts they signed with the mill and campaign to stop any future dumping immediately. Access to clean and safe water is a fundamental human right, and protecting our water resources is essential for ensuring the health and well-being of residents, supporting economic development and preserving the state’s natural environment.