Upon being sworn in, Gov. Janet Mills called for bold action to ensure a healthy environment and healthy people, and challenged us to “expand our horizons and become one Maine again.”

While honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she then cautioned: “It is easy to put distance between us and injustice. But sometimes injustice comes to us.”

Let’s take up her challenge and consider Maine’s unfinished environmental justice agenda.

“Environmental justice” means ensuring that all people have a healthful environment where they live, work and play, regardless of race, culture, income, education, language or other differences. Those most vulnerable and with the least power shouldn’t suffer the most pollution or the worst health outcomes.

Three groups in Maine especially deserve environmental justice: lower-income rural families, new immigrants and the American Indians indigenous to our state.

Those Mainers experiencing poverty or racism shouldn’t face the added stress of toxins found in our drinking water, food and homes. Scientists raise growing concern about “brain drain” chemicals — such as arsenic, lead, mercury and phthalates — that rob our youth of the ability to succeed in school, work and life.


A new environmental justice commitment for Maine should provide access to safe food and drinking water for all children in rural Maine. Over 100,000 Mainers still suffer from well water tainted by arsenic, which is linked to learning disabilities and bladder cancer. Barely half of household wells are regularly tested for arsenic. Yet wells remain exempt from testing requirements.

Gov. Mills should develop a plan for providing universal testing of residential wells and financial aid for water treatment, if needed, to meet health standards.

Lower-income families are also overdependent on processed, packaged and fast food. These are often less nutritious and have higher levels of phthalates, polyfluoroalkyl substances and other chemicals that escape from food processing and packaging.

Maine’s efforts to expand access to locally grown, fresh food should continue apace. And the Legislature should pass a bill proposed by Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, to help drive toxic chemicals out of food packaging in favor of safer alternatives.

For new Mainers, ensure homes free from lead and mold. With some of the oldest U.S. housing stock, Maine struggles with lead poisoning of children and asthma triggered by mold. Those health burdens fall disproportionately on lower-income renters, including recent immigrants.

New Mainers who have escaped war-ravaged countries enrich Maine in many ways, yet can end up sacrificing their children’s health to unhealthy homes. Maine should build on the 2015 law that expanded access to lead remediation by screening all kids for lead poisoning, and funding more lead-safe restoration of rental housing.


Restore tribal sustenance fishing rights, including tougher mercury standards. The state of Maine challenged tribal water quality standards adopted by the Obama administration that are nearly 10 times more protective for mercury in fish than the state’s. The feds agreed that higher fish consumption rates require more protective health standards. But the state continues to press to overturn the stricter standards and deny tribal sustenance fishing rights.

Environmental justice requires respect for the sovereignty of tribal nations, acknowledging that they govern themselves and never surrendered their rights to fish and hunt and gather plants for their health and sustenance.

The state should designate sustenance fishing as a beneficial use of Indian waters and adopt state water quality standards that restore that use. We applaud Jerry Reid, Maine’s new environmental protection commissioner, for his recent pledge to take such an action, which is long overdue.

As Gov. Mills wisely noted in her inaugural address, “Streams, like the people of Maine, change direction on occasion to find the best way forward.” Let’s move forward boldly now, recognizing that by protecting the most vulnerable populations, we also ensure a healthier environment for all of us.

Michael Belliveau is executive director and Alain Nahimana is a board member of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a statewide nonprofit. Nahimana is also executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

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