A Dirty Rotten Shame
It has long been one of the great ironies of Maine: The river widely considered Senator Edmund Muskie's inspiration for his landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 is the only river in Maine that has never met even the minimum standards set by the act. Muskie grew up in Rumford in an era when paper and textile mills treated the Androscoggin River as an open industrial sewer, but he never lived to see it cleaned up the way other Maine rivers were.
The other great irony is that the dirtiest river in Maine has never attracted the kind of public advocacy so common to the Kennebec, the Penobscot, and other rivers and lakes. For decades the Androscoggin River valley has been a blank spot on the map of environmental activism in the state.
That changed in May, when more than 100 members and supporters of the newly formed Androscoggin River Alliance overflowed a hearing room at the Maine State House in Augusta to support a bill that would finally bring the river up to snuff. "We've decided we don't want to be second-class citizens anymore," declares Neil Ward, of Leeds, a fourth-generation valley resident and a founding member of the alliance. "We want and deserve what everyone else in Maine already has."
Even though the bill the group favored ultimately failed, the Androscoggin River Alliance has put both the legislature and the paper mills on notice that the waterway has a new set of homegrown advocates who care deeply about the future of a river that has long been mired in the past. "That was the kind of resistance the paper companies had never seen before," says Elaine Makas, of Lewiston, a Democratic state legislator and alliance member. "All of a sudden there was this group of people standing up and saying, 'We want to be treated fairly.' "
It was the kind of outcry rarely seen before in the valley. The alliance is visible proof of a renaissance of community pride and public interest in towns from Rumford to Lewiston. "For a long time, I think the people of the valley had a real inferiority complex," explains Makas. "We felt that what we had was the best we would ever get, that we somehow deserved this situation. People really bought into that attitude."
Makas, a Bates College graduate who deliberately decided to return to Lewiston in 1989 after she finished her graduate degrees in social psychology, sees a definite — and a defining — change in public attitudes in her city. "I think for so many years people from other parts of the state looked down their noses at Lewiston," she says. "It was this old mill town, sort of dumpy, with a smelly old river.
"Well, guess what. We aren't so old and dumpy anymore. Lewiston is developing a wonderful gateway complex at what used to be the entrance to lower Lisbon Street [formerly the city's famously down-at-the-heels main thoroughfare]. One of the old mills is being converted into luxury condominiums. We've got new buildings going up along the river. Auburn has the new Hilton Garden Inn, a wonderful riverside park, even a new Gritty McDuff's brew pub."
Key to the new development is the Androscoggin River. "We have more than $400 million being invested in downtown Lewiston-Auburn," Makas notes, "and the river is part of our new community identity, the center of everything that's happening."
the Androscoggin is Maine's most industrial river, lined with mills and stalled by dams from Rumford all the way to Brunswick. "For a very long time the price of well-paying jobs in that valley was the pollution of that river," explains Naomi Schalit, who helped organize the alliance as executive director of Maine Rivers, an environmental advocacy group. "They used to call the smells 'the smell of money.' That was the deal that was made in that area. . . . I think in part because of the diminishment of the employment power of the mills and in part because of rising environmental consciousness, the people in that area are quite aware that things will have to change."
Even after many of the textile mills in Lewiston and other towns closed in the 1950s and 1960s, valley citizens and their elected representatives accepted the idea that a certain level of pollution was inevitable to protect the remaining paper mills in Rumford and Livermore Falls. "We folks in the Lewiston-Auburn area understood what it was like not to have a job," Leeds resident Neil Ward offers. "Until recently Lewiston had been in decline for decades, while the Upper Valley had a nice little industry going. We bought the payroll-or-pickerel argument, and we were always willing to give them a chance to keep their jobs."
No one argues that the Androscoggin River is far cleaner than it was in the bad old days, when walls of chemical-laced foam, billowing stenches, and rainbow-hued water characterized the waterway. But the last major improvements in the river's water quality occurred in the 1980s, and the International Paper Mill in Livermore Falls and the Mead/New Page mill in Rumford still dump tens of thousands of pounds of solids, phosphorus, and other pollutants into the river every day. Algae blooms fed by the waste turn the river slimy green in the summer and deplete oxygen levels far below the lower limits needed to sustain the indigenous species required by law.
"You don't want to swim in it," Schalit points out. "Just ask the students on the crew team at Bates. It's not a body of water you want to fall into. It's not one you want to eat the fish from."
Two years ago, the legislature considered and then overwhelmingly voted down a bill that would have forced the mills to clean up their discharges to meet minimal standards for a Class C river — the lowest standard in the law. Instead, legislators approved a measure that created a new, separate, and considerably lower Class C standard just for the Androscoggin above Lewiston — in particular a fourteen-mile stretch of dam-impounded dead water called Gulf Island Pond — and a section of the St. Croix River in eastern Maine. Due to a typographical error, the bill had to be reconsidered and passed again this year.
The original hearings on the bill had been quiet and low key, with little input from valley residents. But word spread in communities along the riverbanks that the bill essentially maintained the status quo and made their river a second-class waterway, so dirty that it deserved its own special status so it could stay dirty.
"I found out what the legislature had done last session, and I was upset," Neil Ward says. "Lewiston and Auburn are seeing the first inkling of real economic development, and the reason is this river running through the middle of the community. And that's not going to continue if the river stinks and turns green every summer. We're seeing [the paper companies'] corporate heads making more money in a year than it would cost to clean up the whole river, and I felt it was time the corporations put some money back into the river."
Ward, working with Schalit, Eliza Townsend at the Maine League of Conservation Voters, and a handful of residents, helped organize the Androscoggin River Alliance in June 2004. Twenty-five people showed up at the first meeting, surprising everyone involved.
Schalit credits the new interest to several factors. The Lewiston Sun-Journal daily newspaper gave the river issue front-page coverage for months, she notes. "Plus, there are more people using the river," she adds. "That was unheard of twenty-five years ago. There are people who row on it, kayakers, canoeists, people who have chosen to live on it. People are getting closer to the river."
representative Makas in January reintroduced the river-improvement bill that had failed two years ago. She acted largely out of anger at the paper mills and at the legislative assumption that the Androscoggin was essentially a lost cause. "The paper companies made me mad," she explains. "I felt their attitude was that the river was there to use as they wanted. I also didn't like the way they talked about Lewiston, as if it didn't matter what they put in the river because, after all, it was only going to Lewiston anyway, and we don't count."
Makas' bill would have done away with the special Class C designation, and given the paper companies five years to meet Clean Water Act standards. Mead/New Paper had no problem with the schedule. International Paper, on the other hand, said it would need at least fifteen years.
Schalit says even she was stunned when more than 100 people turned out for the hearing on Makas' bill before the Natural Resources Committee. "I wasn't prepared for it," she says, "much less the committee. We had overflow rooms, we had people in the visitor center. It was astonishing."
While the attendance was "duly noted," as Schalit says, by the committee, many alliance members felt betrayed when the committee amended the bill after the public hearing to favor International Paper's position. "We were up against the most powerful industry in Maine," Schalit explains. The paper companies "have open and free access to the governor's office. They had open and free access to the Department of Environmental Protection."
The committee watered down the bill despite a state-sponsored report by N. McCubbin Consultants in 2003 that laid out a series of actions that would bring the mills into compliance within the five-year time frame. "The report said they can do this in the short term, they can do this relatively inexpensively, and they can do this cost effectively," Schalit points out. "And they come out more competitive, producing paper at a lower cost. That argument carried no weight with the commitee, none."
"We weren't saying they should stop using the river," Makas adds. "We were saying they should follow the McCubbin report. We're not trying to turn this river into a pristine mountain stream. International Paper had been licensed to pump 10,000 pounds of waste a day into the river. What we wanted would have restricted it to 7,000 pounds in five years. They said it would be too expensive."
"I knew the bill as it was written would fail, just like it had the last time," explains state Senator Scott Cowger, of Hallowell, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. "Rather than see it fail, I wanted some success. What we were able to do was extract from the mills a commitment to get to the higher standard. International Paper finally said it needed ten years, rather than fifteen. I consider that a success."
Not everyone agrees. The Natural Resources Council of Maine has sued the state because the law allows only five-year licensing schedules, not ten. And the Androscoggin River Alliance doesn't plan to let the matter drop in future legislatures. "I don't see this as an acceptable compromise," Makas says.
More importantly, neither do many of the region's residents. "I wasn't expecting people to react the way they have," Makas explains. "All of a sudden I can't go anywhere in Lewiston or Auburn without people coming up to me and talking about the river. I was at a funeral and after the service the minister grabbed my hand and said, 'Thank-you for fighting for our river.' "
"We're not done here yet," says Neil Ward, who now works one day a week for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "I'm forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life I've seen a glimmer of economic prosperity in the Lewiston-Auburn area. It's because of the river. We can't stop now."