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TOP ENVIRONMENTAL, PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS SALUTE LOCAL COLLABORATION

Release Date: 10/19/1997
Contact Information: Leo Kay, EPA Press Office, (617) 918-4154 Deb Garrett, Maine DEP, (207)287-7830

BOSTON -- Federal and state agency heads -- including John P. DeVillars, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office, Ned Sullivan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and Dr. Phil Haines, director of the Maine Bureau of Health -- were in the Rumford area today to offer their congratulations to the Northern Oxford County Coalition on the release of a new action plan for improving public health and air quality in the four-town area of Rumford, Mexico, Peru and Dixfield.

"This effort represents a progressive, innovative, grassroots approach to addressing the environmental issues that are on people's minds in Northern Oxford County," DeVillars said. "My hat is off to the members of the Coalition who worked with regulators and community members alike in identifying and analyzing disturbing trends in areas such as radon, cancer rates, and air quality."

A 25-person coalition of town residents, managers at local businesses including the Mead pulp and paper mill, mill workers, health care providers, and officials from local government, state and federal agencies, the NOCC began meeting three years ago to gather information on pressing questions people had about whether cancer rates are higher on average in the Rumford area than they are in the state and across the country. NOCC members were also concerned about levels of air toxics (a class of air pollutants) in the valley's air.

After a study of local cancer rates and further monitoring of air toxics in the valley, NOCC members broadened their focus by completing a radon testing program, and sponsoring several educational events on dioxin and pollution prevention at local businesses. NOCC members also reached agreement on a comprehensive action plan for improving local public health and air quality.

"What makes this action plan important is that it isn't just one organization's view of what should be done," said Betty Palmer, a home health care nurse and a member of the Coalition. "This plan was jointly developed by many different groups. We worked together until we reached a consensus on what steps should be taken to enhance our local quality of life."

The action plan offers recommendations on radon testing in homes, monitoring for air toxics in the valley's air, pollution prevention at local businesses, health care services and ed ucation for people with cancer and respiratory illness, and further research into the health status of residents of the area. In addition to targeting local organizations, a number of recommendations are directed to the Maine DEP and the EPA.

"The coalition deserves tremendous credit for its growth and accomplishment. It was something of an experiment that worked well beyond expectations," Sulivan said. "The NOCC set its goals, worked through its differences and produced the next generation of community caretakers. A nagging uneasiness about environmental issues has been transformed into proactive pollution prevention."

Along with unveiling their new action plan, NOCC members also passed the torch to a new community-based group called the River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition with a start-up grant. NOCC members Bruce Bryant, Jane DeFrees and Ron Guay handed over a $10,000 check to Healthy Communities Coalition Executive Director Pat Duguay. Founded by NOCC members, the coalition is dedicated to improving public health in the area through community-based initiatives.

"We are ready to build on the great momentum generated by the NOCC to jointly tackle health problems in our community," said Duguay as she accepted the check "Already we've had terrific participation from the community -- we have numerous organizations participating on our Steering Committee alone. We encourage more residents in the area help us organize our next initiatives, including conducting an assessment of health needs and health services here, sponsoring an event for health care providers on diagnosing and treating asthma, and continuing to apply for funding."

Jane Aube, director of Nursing at the Rumford Community Hospital, and a NOCC member, highlighted key recommendations from the NOCC action plan, noting that a full copy of the plan has been sent to every household in the area:

    • All homeowners and renters should test their homes for radon.
    • For those whose test results are above action levels, we recommend that they confirm their results with one more test and then work with a registered radon professional to reduce radon levels in their homes.
    • The Healthy Communities Coalition should conduct a broad needs assessment to understand what services are available in the valley to help prevent and treat cancer and support cancer patients and their families. The coalition should also work to fill any unmet needs.
    • Individuals should stop smoking, drink alcohol in moderation, exercise, and eat a health diet high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber.
    • DEP should conduct at least one full year of air toxics monitoring.