Lessons from the Network: Sergio Cahueque

Sergio is an Organizer for Defend Our Health. Defend Our Health’s vision is “to create a world where all people are thriving, with equal access to safe food and drinking water, healthy homes, and products that are toxic-free and climate-friendly.” 

This interview was conducted on July 6, 2021. This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at Defend Our Health, and how you first got involved with drinking water issues? 

Sergio Cahueque (SC): My name is Sergio Cahueque, I’m an Organizer at Defend Our Health. Defend Our Health is a Maine-based organization and we work to make sure that everybody has equal access to safe drinking water, safe foods, so we’re working at the intersection between public health and environmental health. 

People might be exposed to toxic chemicals through the environment, how that might be affecting people’s health? I got involved with our safe drinking water campaign around three years ago. We started to work on this campaign, because we recognized that there was a big loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, that didn’t include residential well water users. We know the state of Maine has one of the highest rates of residential well water users in the country, with over half of the population in the state relying on well water. We know that there’s no requirements around testing, there’s not a lot of information out there that can help people, the same way that people who depend on public water systems have. We also know that there’s an issue of arsenic in well water, so we started to work on arsenic, but then, in the last two years, we learn more and more about PFAS contamination in the state, but also across the country, and we learned about all the contamination of underground water throughout the state of Maine as well. We started to work around raising awareness and education around the PFAS issue. But also pushing for policy at the state level—also federally. 

We want to make sure that people can have access to testing and remediation when needed, and we’re directing the state of Maine to do more research around how far the contamination throughout the state is and how contamination escapes. 

RN: There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, quality, affordability, and safety. Where do you focus your work? Do you primarily work at the local (city/county), state, regional or federal level?

SC: I think the goal is to make sure that there’s more holistic or more robust criteria around well water use so that there’s more regimented testing requirements or that people can have more access to more information about other contaminants, any other heavy metals or bacteria. We focus on the arsenic, so that’s kind of as a way to get people to test their water and also because it’s kind of a pressing issue but we’re hoping to look at the bigger picture and make sure that people can test for other things as well. 

We started 15 to 17 years ago, we used to be called Environmental Health Strategy Center until a year ago. I think it’s always had that vision of addressing issues structurally and developing policies that can help a lot of people, so we’ve always been focused on environmental health issues for different contaminants. I mean in the end our main goal is to kind of address the federal broken system of how regulation around toxic chemicals work or doesn’t work at this point and just really trying to address that. We’ve been focused on policy at the state level so that can serve as an example, or as a way to address the federal issues as well, but it’s always been focused on the policy and legislation work. 

RN: Defend Our Health worked to implement the act to Protect Consumers of Public Drinking Water by Establishing Maximum Contaminant Levels for Certain Substances and Contaminants (S.P. 64-L.D. 129). What was the impetus to develop and implement this policy?

SC: We learned about the PFAS contamination a couple years ago; we’ve been pressuring the state government to take more action and do more testing and find what the sources of contamination in different communities are. A year and a half ago we created a task force in Maine. The governor called for a PFAS task force, and there were different stakeholders at the table discussing the issues and the framework, the framing of the issues and the solutions, just thinking about what needed to happen. Out of that, first came recommendations, and one of them was around MCL [Maximum Contaminant Level], and addressing the drinking water issues. We had a seat at the table, and we were able to talk with the Governor and the other stakeholders and give our opinion on things. 

And then COVID happened. So, a lot of the recommendations didn’t go anywhere, because everything was paused. Going into the legislative session in 2021, we met with different legislators and policymakers, we were pushing for the creation of a lower MCL at the state level, because we know that the advisory level of the EPA is too high. The 70 PPT is not health protective enough, it’s outdated. So, we were pushing for the 20 parts per trillion, following what other states in the region have done, like New Hampshire and Vermont, Massachusetts… so we were very involved. There was a lot of conversation with different legislators and sponsors and co-sponsors at the state level. But there was also a lot of talking to impacted people on the ground and plugging impacted people into the process, coming to public hearings, getting people to call their legislators, and just really uploading people into the process of trying to show that this is a real issue that is impacting real people on the ground and that we need real solutions, right now. It was a lot of work, but it was one of many pieces of legislation that we were working on this year, but we passed it, we implemented it. We are also requiring public water systems to test water for PFAS, which is needed and lowering the maximum contaminant level to 20 parts per trillion. It’s definitely a right step in the right direction. 

RN: Can you tell me a little bit about any other policies or laws that Defend Our Health has worked on to protect drinking water in recent years? You sound like you’ve been busy.

SC: Totally, so I think more related to drinking water in terms of the PFAS, we have certain pieces of legislation that I think are more relevant to drinking water. There’s one where we direct the state to do more testing around the use of sludge throughout the state, trying to find where contamination is across different communities, so we’re asking the state to do more testing in the soil and the water to find out the extent of the contamination. And then, when it comes to water, we know that a lot of this contamination is coming from the products that we use every day, both through water treatment facilities, but also from industry, so we also pushed for a piece of legislation that calls for the reporting of PFAS in products, and also gives the Department the authority to ban the use of PFAS in non-essential products. So, we’ve kind of asked the industry to argue why they should be using PFAS in the process, and if that’s essential, and if they can’t really make that argument, they’re probably going to be required to move away from PFAS if there are various alternatives available. 

I think that’s a very important piece of legislation because we’re trying to address the contamination from the source, which is the use of PFAS in products, so I think the in terms of PFAS those are really important pieces of legislation that we were working on this year. 

But in terms of the arsenic, we’re working on passing legislation around lowering the standard from 10 parts per billion to something lower. Hopefully five parts per billion, but you know, we still have a lot of work to do around that. We’re also asking the state to offer more resources around testing, and more resources for education and awareness around the state, because we think that people should be given more information, so that’s this year. 

In terms of our drinking well water, in 2017 we had three pieces of legislation. One, the creation of a fund, we’re funding, the Maine arsenic abatement program. It provides money to install the remediation system or to help people who have high levels of arsenic in the water, but don’t have the means to pay for filtration systems, it gives funding to help the people get filtration systems in their houses. I think it’s a pretty important program that we help fund, because it kind of addresses an environmental justice question of, “Who has access to resources or how we can make sure that people can get filtration systems in if needed?” I think those are kind of the highlights of some of the drinking water work and policy that we’ve developed in the last few years. 

RN: How do you build support for your different policy platforms with community members and also, if you work with elected officials, what are some of your strategies or tactics that you’d like to share with others?

SC: Yeah, totally. We believe that we need to be working with people impacted by these issues for many reasons. I think one of them is to make sure that we are really paying attention to the reality of the people impacted and drafting policies that are going to address these issues in a holistic manner, so that we’re not leaving any details out. 

My job as an organizer is to connect with people impacted by our issues throughout the state. On the arsenic or on the PFAS level. Right now, we have a summer campaign where we’re promoting testing and we have these testers, with a “pay what you can” sliding scale testing available for people. We’re doing phone banking trying to organize community meetings and doing all that we can to encourage people to test the water, and you know, based on that, we can engage people on doing more advocacy in the future. We collect stories of how people are impacted by these and connect people to policymakers and legislators that can later become champions on our issues. I think the first step as an organizer is to really raise awareness and education, and make sure that people know about the issue, know about the resources that they need for testing or for remediation and make sure that in the end of the day, people have access to safe drinking water and to the resources that they need to secure that. We’ll then take that a step further and work on collecting the stories that we can later use for legislative campaigns or work with people to develop those advocacy skills that during that campaign, they can help us come to the statehouse and provide testimony or talk to their elected officials, and tell them the story and encourage them to support the campaigns that we’re working on at the time. It’s all about really connecting with people, developing that relationship, and kind of making sure that we can collect the stories and plug people into the work as we need. And also pay attention to the realities of the people on the ground because we want to make sure, as I said before, that the policy that we’re developing is informed by the issues and what people are experiencing on the ground. The example that I love from the arsenic work is, we were working with a person who was exposed to high levels of arsenic and developed different health conditions and then she came to the statehouse and provided testimony, and she was talking about how landlords aren’t required to disclose test results for arsenic in drinking water and then, days later, leaders in the community were amazed and concerned about that issue, so they decided to add language around requiring landlords to disclose their tests for arsenic in drinking water. So, by listening to the experiences from people on the ground and plugging these experiences and people through the process of pushing for legislation, we can make sure that we’re addressing all the details of the issue. 

RN: Are there other organizations that you partnered and built effective coalitions with? If so, what work did you do to build trust, designate roles and responsibilities, and successfully come together?  

SC: Yeah, that’s a great question and I’m so glad that you asked, because I just realized that I forgot to speak a little bit about that, and that’s such an important part of the work that we do and how we achieve all this work. We are part of different coalitions, and we have different relationships with different organizations throughout the state. But I think more important, we are part of the coalition that we call the Maine Conservation Voters or the Environmental Priorities Coalition. It’s a coalition of organizations who work on environmental issues and we come together once a year to determine what some of our legislative priorities for a session. There’s a process of selecting what the priorities are going to be for the year and then after we select the ones that we all kind of agree on for the most part, we decide to support those as a coalition and there are a lot of things that come with getting support from the coalition itself, including some really smart lobbyists that can help us do the lobbying work in the statehouse. 

But also, the different organizations from the coalition help us do advocacy or provide testimony at the statehouse or do more awareness and education work. It depends on the commitment levels and engagement levels of different organizations have, and the capacity. But I think that’s an essential part of the work, because as a group of organizations working on environmental issues, we can really demonstrate that you we support certain issues and fully backup [each other]. I think that’s important to really flag or demonstrate to legislators, that there is a lot of support behind that and there’s a platform of other organizations who are also running behind the issues that we’re working on. I think that one of the PFAS bills I think the one in products, was one of the priority bills for the session and I think having that support from different organizations was really important in getting that passed. I think it’s also very important and very helpful because we can demonstrate that these issues can be addressed from different angles, right? The organizations that do more environmental health work like ours or maybe organizations that do a little bit more conservation work—I think that’s really important to show that there’s different angles to the issue that have to be taken into account as well. Just being able to tap into the network of scientists or people with more resources, I think that’s very useful, so our coalition work is definitely very important in getting all these policies passed. 

RN: Sometimes I’ve seen environmental justice, public health, or environmental health work as sometimes not seen as much of a priority with more traditional environmental groups. I’m just wondering if in Maine—it sounds like you’ve found a way to make sure that your priorities are aligned—but have you had any pushback or having to educate other groups about why they should care about PFAS and things like that?

SC: I think a little bit. Not pushback but it definitely takes work, and I think because we’ve been doing this for a long time, we’re a little bit more established. I think it definitely took, at some point I imagine, or even talking about these issues, it takes a little bit more of a conversation around why the public health aspect is—I mean not a conversation, I think people understand why is important—but I think there’s a lot of organizations who are more traditionally thinking about the conservation aspect and the environment aspect. We need to be thoughtful about plugging the environmental health aspect and at the end of the day, these people are impacted as well, and I think our drinking water campaign is very successful. It really makes a complete argument as to why this matters, and we’re trying to get safe drinking water for everybody in the state, so I think it’s easy for people to understand the value in that framework or in that framing for the issue. 

And it just really complements, when it comes to PFAS, it’s about the land, it’s about the rivers, the source of the underground water and how people are drinking contaminated water as well, so I think there’s not a lot of pushback because I feel like it complements very nicely. I feel like people really appreciate that connection, because otherwise it’s not made very clearly through maybe more traditional conservation or environmentalist framing. 

RN: Passing a bill or resolution is a big accomplishment, but we know it isn’t the end of the story. Can you describe what implementation has looked like so far? Are you continuing to work with affected communities and/or state agencies to make sure LD 129 is actually being well implemented?

SC: That’s a great point and we know that getting the legislation passed and implemented leads to a longer path of getting these resources to people on the ground. 

For example, on the PFAS work, on the water contaminant level we’ve been working with the department, with the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection], on making sure that as they’re doing testing for communities that are impacted by PFAS contamination that they are also now taking into account people whose PFAS levels in the drinking water that are above 20 parts per trillion when they’re thinking about offering filtration systems in communities. Because we know that for the last half a year or so they were using 70 parts per trillion. But now that we are descending from 70 to 20 parts per trillion for six compounds, we already heard from the department that they’re already thinking about and preparing for that. But it’s a lot of work and making sure that they follow through with their commitments, that the people who were not taken into account before, but fall between the 20 and 70 parts per trillion can also apply for the filtration systems if they need to. There’s definitely a lot of work in making sure that the department is following through with what is being established through policy. 

I think, thankfully, we have a good relationship with the DEP and we have open lines of communication, so we can talk to them about what we think needs to happen or when do we want to see more work and more resources being put into… but it definitely takes a lot of work of just kind of building that relationship or calling them out if we need to. We definitely want to make sure that the policies—now that the policies are there and there’s resources—that the wheels are moving and we can see these resources going to the community. We are definitely taking, with some community groups, we’re definitely taking a little bit of a break, because it was a very busy legislative session. But we know that in a month or so we need to come back and see how things are going and see what the next steps are for making sure that things are happening. 

RN: What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization as you work on drinking water issues?

SC: I think there’s a couple things that come to my mind, and I think one is: sometimes the department makes arguments that they are understaffed or they don’t have the resources or they don’t have the capacity to established lower maximum contaminant levels for arsenic. Or the toxicologists at the state level says that instead of using the work of another state, that they want to go through a rulemaking and come to results themselves and things like that. Which is kind of contradictory because they’re like, “we don’t have staff and we don’t have time, but we want to do all this work instead of using the work that has happened in other states.” But I think arguing against that has been a little bit of a challenge. But I think we’ve been very successful at pushing back and making arguments against that.  

I think something else is the municipal water districts and different rural water associations, who also argue that there’s not enough money or testing for remediating PFAS on the new standard or arsenic on the new standard and that that’s going to cost millions. And really taking into account how rural the state is, you know, that those kinds of arguments or those voices are heard at the State level. I think again, we were also good at arguing back or pushing back or just really, again, pushing the public health angle and saying, “What is much more cost effective at the end of the day?” Remediate before we have to deal with the health consequences afterwards. I think those are two of the things that come to my mind, just really arguing against the departments [saying] they don’t have capacity or resources and try to rally the money for funding for all the things that we want because as you might know, all the PFAS testing in water is really expensive, and to the level that we’re demanding it’s really expensive, but I think we’ve been able to secure the funding, but I think that’s literally one of the biggest headaches that we had to deal with, where’s the money coming from? Where can we get the capacity for the department to do more work and things like that. I think those were the biggest challenges. 

RN: Are you all working on making the polluters try to fund that work, to pay for their contamination?

SC: Totally. For example, for testing, we have a mechanism where people disposing of sludge had to pay like $10 per ton or something so that we could add the funding mechanism, that was going to fund the testing of soil and water. But also, we address some things in the legislation where we are trying to extend the time that impacted people have to call responsible parties accountable. We’re also pushing the DEP to sue the industry as well, so we’re definitely trying to get the polluters to pay for all the contamination that they created in the first place. 

RN: What’s your biggest accomplishment to date? What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

SC: I think that’s important because we sometimes don’t take enough time to celebrate or to really acknowledge all the work that we do. I think all of the legislation—I think we had like seven pieces of legislation on PFAS this session—and I think, maybe we’re waiting to hear back from one or two, but I think most of them are passed already. So definitely a big success and I think what I said before- we’re seeing how the department is already responding to things like lowering the standard maximum contaminant level in water and seeing how some people might have access now to compression systems or seeing how the department is preparing to do a lot more testing throughout the state. So, we’re seeing how this is benefiting people around the state already, it’s kind of really cool to see.  

We had a meeting with a community group a week or a week and a half ago. And they were all very happy with the work that we’ve been doing, and as I said before, there are some people who have felt burnt out, but they’re ready to come back and do more work. There’s a lot more work ahead of us, so we keep bringing other community groups together, planning more meetings, and just talking about next steps. 

I think we are, in our organization, in Defend Our Health we’re definitely taking a moment and kind of celebrating all the things that we’ve achieved. Maybe taking a pause and just really looking back at everything that we’ve done but there’s a lot more work to be done, and we know that we have to keep organizing, we have to keep advocating and there’s a lot more work ahead of us. So, I’m very happy with everything that we’ve completed and I’m kind of looking forward to the work that we have too.

Black and white headshot of LJ Portis, with his head slightly tilted to the left.