It’s ironic that Gov. Shumlin’s first and only veto came on the same day he signed into law the nation’s first single-payer health care plan. The bill he killed — S.77 — would have required all new private wells dug in Vermont to be tested for a variety of elements, including arsenic, a known carcinogen.
The bill, which had bipartisan support in the legislature, was designed to protect Vermonters such as 5-year-old Bjorn Coburn, who became seriously ill in November 2008 immediately after moving in with his grandparents in Whiting. A previously happy, healthy and active child, Bjorn developed bouts of vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
“He was dull, he had no curiosity and would sleep for hours of the day,” recalls his mother, Laurel Coburn. “He was just not there. It was very scary.”
Doctors ruled out a variety of causes, including Lyme disease, E. coli and food allergies. No one suspected the family’s drinking water could be the source of Bjorn’s problem. It came from a steel-lined, private well 1000 feet deep, far lower than levels susceptible to contamination by agricultural runoff. Moreover, there’s no known history of industrial activity anywhere near the 14-acre rural property.
It took six months of visits to Children’s Hospital Boston, and more than $5000 in medical bills, before the family got a definitive diagnosis: acute poisoning from naturally occurring arsenic in the family’s drinking water. Once Bjorn was taken off the well water, his condition improved immediately, “like someone had flipped a switch,” Coburn recalls. “It was amazing!”
The Coburns testified in favor of S.77 to spare other families from having to go through the same ordeal. In their view, Bjorn was the “canary in the coal mine,” who may have saved any one of them from developing a deadly illness.
A further irony: Bjorn’s grandparents, Carolyn Schmidt and Randy Kritkausky, cofounded and still work for an international environmental organization, ECOLOGIA, which helps communities in the developing world address such issues as pollution in their public water supplies. Says Kritkausky, “If anyone was going to be sensitive to this kind of thing, we should have thought of it.”
Shumlin had money, not medicine, on his mind when he killed S.77 two weeks ago. In his veto message, he said that he didn’t want to impose an additional expense on rural Vermonters. The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), wasn’t surprised. When Shumlin was in the legislature, she points out, he often displayed a libertarian streak, having voted against Vermont’s mandatory seat-belt law and the motorcycle helmet law.
However, much of the public discussion of Shumlin’s veto overlooks two critical public-health concerns this bill would have addressed: First, about 40 percent of all Vermonters get their drinking water from sources unregulated by state or federal law. Second, data from the Vermont Department of Health, as well as extensive research done by Middlebury College professors and students, suggests that as many as one in four Vermonters may be drinking water with arsenic levels that exceed the maximum limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for public water supplies.
Peter Ryan is a professor of geology and environmental studies at Middlebury College. About nine years ago he and his colleague, Jonathan Kim, a geologist at the Vermont Geological Survey, began researching the origins of elevated levels of arsenic, uranium and alpha radiation that show up in groundwater tests throughout the state.
Ryan and Kim, who tested hundreds of private wells in Vermont for “everything from arsenic to zinc,” soon made a critical discovery: Nearly all the hazardous contaminants showing up in private wells come from naturally occurring sources. Simply put, the problem is in the rocks.
Currently, Vermont doesn’t require any water-quality testing on newly dug wells, as many other states already do; S.77 would have changed that. As Ryan points out, well drillers occasionally recommend that homeowners get their water tested, particularly in areas of the state where problems have already been identified.
However, Ryan cautions that, unlike some other states with very uniform geology, Vermont’s is diverse and complex, making it difficult to predict which elements will show up in the groundwater. And, while some areas of the state have been thoroughly mapped for their subterranean geology, others are unknown because so few groundwater tests have been done there.
“We’ve got a really good spatial picture showing that southwestern Vermont has an elevated incidence of arsenic in drinking water, where about 40 percent of the [private wells tested] exceed what a public water system could legally deliver to its consumers,” Ryan says. “That raises real concerns.”
Equally troubling, Ryan adds, is that surveys reveal “a pretty big gap between what the public should ideally understand about groundwater and what they do understand.”
The good news: Problems like the one the Coburns experienced are relatively cheap and easy to fix. Coburn says a water-quality test that costs $120 could have saved her family thousands of dollars in medical bills, travel costs and lost wages, not to mention months of pain and suffering for her son. In fact, once arsenic was pinpointed as the cause of his illness, the family installed a reverse-osmosis water filter under the kitchen sink, which corrected the problem for less than $1000.
“I very much respect the governor’s concerns about personal liberty, personal choice and cost,” Coburn says. “But to me, this is preventative health care. It’s a no-brainer.”
What’s the likelihood that this bill will come around again? Depends on who you ask. Rep. David Deen (D-Putney), who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, says he was shocked by Shumlin’s veto.
“We worked with the commissioner of health, and he was in our committee room whenever that bill was being considered. We incorporated just about all of his suggestions,” says Deen. “Does that mean the governor’s office was in the room? You’d think so, but that’s not the way it worked out.”
Deen believes S.77 will “absolutely” be brought up again next year, calling it “a cheap investment” in the future health of Vermonters.
Lyons, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, isn’t so sure. She’s certain about one thing, though: Unless water-quality testing is mandatory, most Vermonters won’t do it.