Committee pans controversial water bill; local vaccination bill opponents testify at hearing

By Ethan Andrews | Mar 22, 2019
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Belfast Area High School Principal Jeff Lovejoy advises a group of parents at an RSU 71 board meeting March 11 to focus on access to education when speaking against an immunization bill now before the Legislature. Pictured from left: Jane Robertson, Nicolle Littrell, Edna Dodge and Kristine Clark.

Augusta — The Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on March 12 voted 11-0 that a controversial water oversight bill sponsored by Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, ought not to pass.

LD 620, An Act Regarding Licensing of Land-based Aquaculture Facilities, would require the Department of Environmental Protection to consider the cumulative effects of pollution from land-based fish farms that discharge to the same body of water.

If passed, the bill could affect two major land-based aquaculture facilities planned on or near Penobscot Bay. Whole Oceans has already received a wastewater discharge permit for a facility in Bucksport. Nordic Aquafarms, which hopes to build a facility in Belfast, has permit applications set to go before the state Board of Environmental Protection.

Brian Kavanah, director of DEP's division of water quality, told the committee that the new rules for land-based aquaculture facilities aren't necessary.

"We don't have regulations specific to them," he said, "but we don't really need regulations specific to this type of discharge because we have the authority under the law and our regulations to permit all sorts of discharges, and the process is the same for all of them."

The bill is one of three submitted by Dodge that were drafted by the environmental advocacy group Friends of Penobscot Bay.

Supporters have said more oversight for the bay is warranted by the arrival of a new industry and potentially one of the largest land-based salmon farms in the world. Opponents have said the bill unfairly targets one industry and has the potential to penalize one fish farm for the over-pollution of another.

Speaking to the committee, Kavanah said that could be the case. Asked what would happen if Whole Oceans and Nordic Aquafarms were permitted and a third land-based aquaculture facility applied for a discharge permit, he said the division would come up with an allocation for each, which he likened to a pie.

"It's possible that people would have limits that would make limits more stringent than in the past," he said.

The committee voted unanimously not to recommend the bill but agreed to draft a letter to DEP asking the department to review language in its nutrient discharge rules and make any necessary changes that are specific to land-based and marine-based aquaculture.

Speaking on March 19, Dodge said she had been "glad to give voice to constituent concerns" with LD 620 and was "pleased" with the committee's vote to send a letter to DEP.

"I will continue to work for a safe and vibrant Penobscot Bay," she said.

Immunization bills bring hundreds to Augusta

Waldo County residents were among hundreds from around the state who testified March 13 on a pair immunization bills. The public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs ran 13 hours with state records showing close to 600 pieces of testimony read or submitted.

LD 798 aims to boost immunization rates by removing the philosophical and religious exemptions from Maine's school immunization requirements. Another bill, LD 987, would give medical professionals the final say on medical exemptions. The latter appears to address a gray area between the traditional pro- and anti-vaccination positions.

Edna Dodge of Belfast, who, along with a group of parents, asked Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors to oppose LD 798, said one of her five children has a severe allergy to an ingredient that exists in many vaccines, but it doesn't qualify for a medical exemption, so she is forced to use the philosophical exemption. She described her children as "almost up-to-date" on vaccines.

Jane Robertson, another parent said she has foregone immunizations for her children, ages 17 and 22, and they are none the worse for it.

"The immunization system is designed to fight viruses and bacteria," she said in written copy of her statement to the committee. "If a person lives a healthy lifestyle, there is no need for medications or vaccinations. My family is living proof."

Pro-immunization speakers focused on the risks to the general population as parents opt out. LD 798 sponsor Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, used a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metaphor of a leaking boat and said the gains made through immunization over the years — water bailed out of the boat — are being lost as some people put down their buckets.

Opponents said the bill would trample informed consent and parental authority, allowing forced medical procedures. Others, like Dodge, focused on gaps in the medical exemption. Some who testified spoke of vaccine injuries.

Maine ranks 18th in the nation in rates of immunizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the third quarter of 2018, Waldo County's exemption rate was higher than the state average and the immunization rate was among the lowest in the state at 67.5 for "4313314," a standard that refers to the recommended number of doses of seven vaccines.

The committee has not made recommendations on either bill.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the interaction between parents who oppose LD 798 and the Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors. The group ask the board to take a position opposing the bill. The board requested more information and did not immediately take a position on the bill.

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