By Steve Collins, Staff Writer
AUBURN — Sometimes one person in the right place makes all the difference.
Back in 1973, a New York-based firm called the Pittston Co. sought to construct an oil refinery astride Passamaquoddy Bay in Eastport. The refinery would take in 250,000 barrels daily from tankers that would navigate the tricky Head Harbor Passage.
For the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the plan looked like a disaster in the making, with its reliance on oil tankers carrying 2 million gallons maneuvering through difficult waters.
In the end, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Boston regional office nixed the proposal. It might endanger the few remaining bald eagles along Maine’s rocky shore, the agency said.
Behind that decision stood one man, William R. “Bill” Adams Jr., a Lewiston native appointed by President Jimmy Carter. Adams knew the territory because he had already logged eight years as Maine’s top environmental regulator.
Adams, 89, died Tuesday at Schooner Estates in Auburn, leaving behind four children, 11 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and a legacy of playing a key role in cleaning up Maine’s air and water after generations of careless pollution.
Richard Anderson, a former state fisheries biologist, executive director of the Maine Audubon Society and commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, remembered Adams Thursday as “a great guy” and “very effective administrator” who used his engineering savvy and people skills to get things done to promote environmentalism.
“Things were just starting then,” Anderson said, and Adams was a crucial figure.
Son-in-law Lloyd Irland of Wayne, a former director of the Maine Bureau of Public Lands and forestry expert, recalled Thursday that Adams grew up in a working-class family in Lewiston, where he must have smelled the stench of the heavily polluted Androscoggin River almost every day.
Tapped as the first leader of Maine’s new environmental department, Adams told a reporter in 1971 that he realized as an engineering student two decades earlier that environmental problems would one day mushroom to become a major issue.
He added, though, that he never expected to find himself “in the thick of it” when environmental concerns rose to prominence.
Adams helped lay the groundwork for the Clean Air and Clean Water acts sponsored by U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and then played a key role in overseeing the implementation of the tough new federal standards that have, over time, transformed the Pine Tree State to a degree that most young Mainers cannot even imagine.
Leslie Carothers, a deputy regional EPA administrator who worked with Adams, noted that he had “initiated several of the first federally supported lake restoration projects,” among other accomplishments.
During his stint in overseeing Maine’s environmental bureaucracy – first the Maine Environmental Improvement Commission and then, when it supplanted the commission, the new Department of Environmental Protection – Adams sometimes came under fire, as well.
At the time, scores of industrial concerns were dumping chemical waste constantly, especially the big paper mills that dominated Maine’s political and economic landscape.
Just after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, consumer advocate Ralph Nader griped that “Maine has become a water wasteland, with its great rivers sullenly serving as private sewers” for paper mill owners who controlled politicians in Augusta.
A study sponsored by Nader criticized state regulators for submitting to “environmental and economic blackmail” from paper mills that controlled so much in a state so poor that it was particularly vulnerable.
It said that Adams’ DEP “barely keeps up with even the simplest administrative tasks” because it operated with too few employees, too little money and relied on laws that were too weak. Nader’s report also cited “an attitude of tolerance” by top officials in Maine that let the paper mills get away with too much.
Irland said that with so little authority, Adams’ staff could do little more than “take inventory and make lists and tell people they were being naughty.”
That changed rapidly after Muskie’s legislation went through Congress in 1972.
Irland said that during Adams’ tenure, the regulatory staff grew from about a half-dozen to enough people to fill a three-story building in Augusta, the consequence of federal cash pouring in to deal with the environmental disaster Maine had become.
Adams, he said, “was riding the dragon through that period” as new laws focused attention and money on the many issues involved in cleaning up.
Taken together, Irland said, the new laws made a large difference in what the state and federal government could do to help the environment.
Born in 1928, Adams grew up in Lewiston, where he became an Eagle Scout. He then headed to the University of South Carolina as part of a U.S. Navy program that helped him earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in return for serving on active duty afterwards.
Irland said his father-in-law became an officer on the U.S.S. Ellyson, a destroyer assigned to a mine-sweeping force. In one especially severe storm, waves crashed over the bridge and the ship tilted dangerously close to capsizing, but Adams always loved the ocean and its endless horizons.
Decades later, Adams told Irland, “That was the best job I ever had.”
But he gave it up rather than spend time away at sea after the birth of his daughter.
Adams came home to Lewiston, working first for Central Maine Power Co., then as an assistant city engineer, then as city engineer, a position that included figuring out the exact location of all of the city’s sewer and water pipes, something the municipal records lacked.
He went on to become Lewiston’s public works director, where he played an important role in creating the Lewiston Water Pollution Control Authority, a first step toward controlling the quantity of wastes reaching the river.
Adams moved to Augusta when Gov. Kenneth Curtis selected him to serve as his top environmental chief.
When Carter won the presidency in 1976, Anderson said he wondered if environmentalists ought to press to put one of their own in office as the EPA’s regional boss in Boston, the sort of position that industry officials typically claimed.
So Anderson went to Adams and asked if he’d given any thought to seeking the position.
“Why, no, I never thought of it,” Adams responded. But he agreed to give it a shot.
Anderson, Adams and a couple of other guys wound up driving to the nation’s capital sometime after Election Day for a big party for Muskie, where they could, with a little luck, introduce Maine’s environmental boss to Carter’s new EPA director.
They managed to find the guy in a big crowd and, a month later, Adams got the nod to go to Boston as a regional EPA chief.
It was in that role, overseeing environmental issues throughout New England, that Adams made the key decision on the fate of the proposed oil refinery Down East, a verdict that courts ultimately upheld after a lengthy lawsuit from the promoters.
Irland said that after serving in the Carter administration, his father-in-law worked in the private sector for a dozen years before retiring.
Said Irland, “He had a wonderful retirement,” with many friends and family – and his reputation intact.