Integrate Energy and Food Security

November 18, 2017

There is a growing need to integrate energy and food security into the orbit of public health. A
precedent in central Maine can be in the origins of our water security created by the Kennebec Water
District founded nearly 120 years ago. The water district was established very much along the lines of a
community cooperative model that was responsive to an urgent public health crisis.

Modern public health generally dates its origins to the bold actions of John Snow, a London physician in
the mid nineteenth century who brought an end to a cholera epidemic by recognizing its source to be a
contaminated water supply. While this event is well known in public health circles, a little known public
health water crisis took place in central Maine only 50 years later. In the early 1900s, we were in the
midst of a typhoid epidemic that Harvard epidemiologists attributed to the contaminated water supply
drawn from the Messalonski Stream, controlled by a private company that apparently cared more about
profits than health. As stated in the history of the Kennebec Water District
( ) a brilliant young attorney named Harvey
Eaton, walking from Oakland to Waterville one evening and seeing the lights in surrounding towns,
conceived the idea of a community water district, a public entity that no single town in the area could
support on its own.

Despite the substantial costs associated with converting the ownership of the water supply from a
private to a public entity, communities in Central Maine decided to move forward in establishing a water
district. This was the first in the country, motivated by a civic duty to protect public health. The first
president of the water district was Dr. Frederick Thayer, for whom Thayer Hospital was later named.
Harvey Eaton was the Counsel for the district.

I do not know what Mr. Eaton’s motivations were. Given Maine’s social and political climate at the
time, particularly concerning infectious diseases, it is likely that concern for the public welfare was a
significant factor. Since the early years of the twentieth century was a time of great belief in the power
of collective societal action to improve the human condition, creating a collaborative water district
made sense. For example, the progenitor of Maine’s current Lung Association, the Maine Anti-
tuberculosis Society, was formed at that that time when tuberculosis was the greatest public health
threat that our country was facing and the need for a societal response was high priority. We urgently
need to remember those times today. While water security remains a core public health activity, energy
and food security have yet to be recognized as a fundamental public health necessity. Several
assessments have shown that in times of energy crises, vulnerable populations are forced to decide
between essential energy and food needs.

We in Maine need not further expose ourselves to such vulnerabilities. We need not encumber
ourselves to a fossil-fuel based energy economy that is completely outside of the ability of Maine people
to influence. We don’t have to rely on the financial volatility of environmentally destructive fossil fuel
markets when we have ample renewable energy resources within the state. One immediate way to gain
local control over a critical economic and public health need in our region could be through a
community solar energy cooperative. Such a cooperative, like wind cooperative established in North
Haven and Vinalhaven, would be a not-for- profit business voluntarily owned and controlled by the
people who use its services. I would like to see this happen in the central Maine region. A cooperative would help ensure long term sustainability for the region as well as bring the profits of such an
enterprise back to our local community. Further, a cooperative could work effectively with a larger
public utility too ensure both resilience and reliability in ways that are complementary, not competitive.
Moreover, an energy cooperative could align with the expanding activities around food cooperatives
throughout Maine and beyond.

Given the passion that drove Mr. Eaton to form the Kennebec Water District , I would hope that this
modern day effort at ensuring the protection of public health and thepublic trust would receive an
approving nod.

Norm Anderson is a public health scientist and a member of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Public Policy
Team. He lives in Winslow.

Last modified: November 18, 2017

Comments are closed.