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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maine River Cleanup Spawns Controversy

Air Date: Week of

A plume of contamination emptying into the Androscoggin, just below the International Paper mill in the town of Jay. (Photo: courtesy of Maine DEP)

Once on the list of the country’s ten most polluted rivers, Maine’s Androscoggin River was one of the inspirations for the Clean Water Act. But some old mill towns in Maine are at odds over the cleanup of the Androscoggin. Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Susan Sharon has our story.


CURWOOD: The Androscoggin River winds through the New Hampshire countryside and flows through the state of Maine; past paper mills and farms. It used to be one of the ten most polluted rivers in the nation, and helped inspire the 1972 Clean Water Act.

More than thirty years later, the Androscoggin has yet to clean up its act enough to meet even the minimum standard of the law. And once again it has become a powerful symbol for some Maine mill towns locked in a struggle over their identity and their future. From Maine Public Broadcasting, Susan Sharon reports.


SHARON: The Great Falls of the Androscoggin River separate the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, Maine. Once these swift-moving waters were channeled through canals to power textile mills that sprung up in brick and mortar along the banks. Shoe factories flourished here, too, making the area an industrial hub that attracted waves of immigrants in the mid-1800s, many of them French-Canadian. By the mid 1980s most of the textile industry and the shoe factories were gone – relocated offshore or closed – leaving massive brick monuments to the bygone era and a contaminated river.

O’BRIEN: What we're here to talk about is maintaining the quality, the quality of the river.

SHARON: At a public hearing last spring, State Representative Lillian O'Brien of Lewiston was one of dozens of people who testified in favor of improving water quality standards on the Androscoggin. Lewiston, she says, is in the midst of an economic revival, with more than 400 million dollars invested in development around the river.

O’BRIEN: We cannot continue our economic engine with a dirty river.


A plume of contamination emptying into the Androscoggin, just below the International Paper mill in the town of Jay. (Photo: courtesy of Maine DEP)

SHARON: The stench and pollution of the Androscoggin are legendary in Maine. People say 30 years ago the odor from the water could peel the paint off houses and you could bounce quarters off the foam. That didn't stop Maine Senator Edmund Muskie from seeing potential in the brown-stained waters. It's been said that if Muskie was the father of the Clean Water Act, then the Androscoggin River was surely the mother.

Muskie grew up in the papermaking town of Rumford, just a few hundred yards from the Androscoggin's shores. His Clean Water Act spelled out ambitious programs for water quality improvements by factories, farmers and municipalities. It placed rigorous demands on polluters to meet certain deadlines. And it embraced the philosophy that all discharges into the nation's waterways are unlawful unless specifically authorized by a permit, the Act's principal enforcement tool. The late Senator Muskie knew it would take a commitment.

MUSKIE: You've got to spend money. You've got to impose standards, and you've got to enforce them. There's no easy way to do it.

WARD: When Ed Muskie, you know, announced the Clean Water Act I was 12 years old.

SHARON: Neil Ward, of the Androscoggin River Alliance, grew up near here, too. But Ward says he's still waiting for Muskie's vision to be realized.

WARD: You know, they promised that by the time I was 20 years old I'd be able to swim in this river. Well, I’m 45, and I wouldn't let my son stick a foot in this water.


SHARON: Ward maneuvers his boat on the Androscoggin between the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. He's forced to stop at an impoundment in a section called Gulf Island Pond. Here, the river is flat and wide, the riverbank fringed with shaggy Spruce and Pine. Nesting eagles fly overhead. But this is ground zero in the debate over river quality, the place where the river is so unhealthy that oxygen is pumped in to try to keep the fish alive.

WARD: The chemicals that the paper industry has dumped in her over the last decades, it's stuck right here. It can't go any further than this impoundment.

SHARON: Ward blames the river's biggest polluter, International Paper, and other paper companies upstream. State laws passed more than a decade ago required reductions in color, odor, foam and dioxin. And there's no disputing that water quality has improved. But in recent years an intense legislative battle has been waged to get paper companies to reduce billions of gallons of phosphorus and other discharges into the Androscoggin to bring it into compliance with the Clean Water Act.


SHARON: Further upstream and inland is the town of Jay, a town so small that you could pass through its center and not even know it – except for the fact that it's home to International Paper's Androscoggin Mill. With a thousand employees, IP is the largest employer for many towns around, and its well-paying jobs are highly coveted and well defended.

Dr. Greg D'Augustine of Lewiston learned this first-hand when he testified before the Maine Legislature's Natural Resources Committee. Among the committee members was State Representative Tom Saviello, who is also the compliance manager for the IP Mill. When Dr. D'Augustine tried to make the case that a cleaner river could bring in more sport fishermen and guides to the region, Representative Saviello challenged the economics of the argument.

D'AUGUSTINE: My understanding is if we introduce clean enough water for our native species to survive we will see profit from increased tourism, primarily.

SAVIELLO: Okay, the difference between tourism and a mill job – what's the pay?

D'AUGUSTINE: I think we can do both.

SAVIELLO: I didn't ask that. I asked what's the pay difference?

SHARON: Saviello isn't the paper industry's only defender. Jay Selectman William Harlowe has worked in the Androscoggin Mill since 1966. His wife and son are also employed by IP. Harlowe says he understands why towns and residents downstream want the river to meet standards of the Clean Water Act, but he believes there has to be a balance between protecting jobs and improving water quality. Harlowe supports a recent permit schedule approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The permit gives IP ten more years to meet the goal.

HARLOWE: It is getting cleaner. Is it perfect? No. Does it need more work? Yes. But I think the timeline they established, that they came up with is something the companies will work to achieve that goal. We see companies folding here every month in this state, and I'd like to give IP the opportunity to get their overtime.

SHARON: Environmentalists say the ten-year timetable violates the Clean Water Act. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state's largest environmental group, has filed suit against the company over what it says is failure to operate with valid permits. Mill spokesman Bill Cohen says IP has consistently adhered to federal, state and local regulations, and has recently set aside four million dollars for required cleanup.

COHEN: This mill is committed to working toward getting the Androscoggin River to meet standards and, perhaps, hopefully even better than the standards that are published. Can't do it instantly. It isn't going to happen tomorrow.

SHARON: Recently, International Paper announced it was putting its mills up for sale. State and local officials, as well as the mill's employees, are hopeful another paper mill will take over. But Neil Ward, who worked in a Lewiston shoe factory before it closed, is convinced the state has bungled an opportunity to improve river quality for the sake of preserving paper industry jobs that may be lost anyway.

WARD: Eventually those mills are going to be gone. I just don't see them in the long-term future of Maine.


SHARON: As workers put the finishing touches on a new restaurant in Lewiston, Travis Soule says he doesn't see paper mills in Maine's future either. Soule is a developer who has acquired several vacant mill buildings in Lewiston with plans to rehab them into 36 luxury riverside condos and boutique shops. Soule says he was inspired by the Androscoggin's Great Falls. He pictures canoes and kayaks on this stretch of river, people fly fishing and swimming.

SOULE: The Androscoggin River was the economic backbone I think of Maine for a long time, for good, bad, or indifferent. The river as a working river? I think it's days are numbered, frankly. I think that there are more diverse uses for the river. And it should be cleaner.

SHARON: Once scorned for attracting thousands of immigrants to the mills along the Androscoggin, the cities of Lewiston and Auburn are now seeing the potential of their natural resource. These cities – and the town of Jay – are inextricably linked by the Andrscoggosin. But their economic interests, and their timetables for cleaning up the river that helped spawn the Clean Water Act, remain markedly different.

For Living On Earth, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.



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