by Larry Grard, staff writer
Kennebec Journal news story
There was a time within many people’s lifetimes when almost no one would have fished the confluence of the Kennebec and Sebasticook rivers in Winslow.
Tanneries, factories and mills dumped municipal sewage into the Kennebec and its tributaries, fouling the waters as they flowed through Augusta toward Merrymeeting Bay. In Hartland, the Sebasticook River below the tannery ran with the color of dyes used on leather.
It was the same with other rivers across Maine and the nation. Once pristine, filled with fish, home to mammals and birds, the living, breathing Kennebec had been smothered to death by a flood of sewage and bark, poisoned by chemicals
Things began to change 35 years ago, when Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie and others introduced a bill that would become the landmark Clean Water Act. Muskie also sponsored amendments to the bill in 1977.
One of the nation’s most significant pieces of environmental legislation, the act gave the state and local governments, and dedicated environmentalists the tools to begin a cleanup that would almost immediately begin yielding results.
Today, the public enjoys fishing, boating and even swimming on the Kennebec. Property values have increased. Developers are cashing in by renovating old mills as condos and retail space.
“It’s almost impossible now to visualize what (the Kennebec) was then,” said Clinton “Bill” Townsend of Canaan, a pioneer in the clean-water movement since the late 1950s. “It’s literally the difference between night and day when it was an open sewer, back in the 1960s.”
“There was the fish kill and the stench so bad in the river that they couldn’t even open the windows at the Statehouse, and paint was peeling off houses in Richmond,” he said.
In those days, Townsend limited his fishing to local streams or to the Kennebec above Skowhegan. “I didn’t fish below the Shawmut dam and I didn’t fish much in Skowhegan,” he said. “Everybody knew it was horribly polluted, and of course the log drives were still going on.”
A CLEAN START
Townsend and others who remember the Kennebec as it was agree that the river’s recovery, prompted by the Clean Water Act, began after riverside municipalities alongside it began building new water treatment plants in the late 1970s.
The facilities that were in place only removed the larger solids from the water. The secondary plants reduce even further the quantity of waste that goes into rivers, so that bacteria in the river have less to eat, and less oxygen is used.
Muskie’s bill required industry and municipalities to meet “best available technology standards” for specified pollutants by July 1,1984. It also required compliance with best technology for newly-listed toxins within three years.
Dave Courtemanch, director of environmental assessments for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that no single chemical comprised the pollutants. The offending matter simply was any number of solids whose decomposition deprived the water of oxygen, he said.
Courtemanch estimates that industry and government have spent well over $100 million on new technology and plants to clean up the Kennebec.
Nick Bennett, a scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that the treatment plants were the crucial element in the Clean Water Act. “Industrial and municipal dischargers had to use the treatment system,” Bennett said.
“They couldn’t discharge waste into the rivers anymore. That made a huge difference.”
Bennett still sees room for improvement regarding the state’s pulp mills’s waste-control methods. But he said the efforts of Muskie and like-minded early environmentalists is unmistakable. “The Clean Water Act was a huge success,” he said. “I love that river. I go duck hunting along it often.”
Townsend also likes to hunt ducks. He, too, remembers the bad old days.
Courtemanch said the cleanup of the Kennebec was replicated across the state, but with mixed results. “The Androscoggin was the most polluted and probably still is,” he said. “The Kennebec and the Penobscot meet state water-quality standards.”
Courtemanch mentioned the Androscoggin in the same breath as the Ohio, the Cuyahoga and the Potomac as some of the most polluted rivers in the country prior to the Clean Water Act.
LOG DRIVES END
Maine’s famous log drives contributed heavily to the river’s pollution load.
Former Maine Attorney General Jon Lund recalls the series of events that stopped the log drives. In private practice at the time, Lund represented Howard Trotzky and another plaintiff who owned land along the river’s northern stretches, in the Solon area.
By the middle part of the 20th century the log drives had gone from a springtime endeavor to a continuing operation.
“The river would be clogged with logs all year long,” he said. “There was no canoeing, no fishing and the logs killed shoreline vegetation. There was tannic acid in the hemlock, and bark was knee-to-ankle deep on the river bottom.”
Lund brought a court action against both the mills and the Kennebec Log Driving Co. “The river is like a highway,” he said. “It’s there for common use, and there were people who were making exclusive use of it.”
Lund’s action was stayed when Peter Mills Sr., United States Attorney at the time, declared that the log company and the mills were violating the Rivers and Harbors Act and brought action in federal court.
The state legislature then passed a law prohibiting the drives, rendering both lawsuits moot.
In 1999, Edwards Dam in Augusta was torn down. For the first time ever, the federal government ruled that the benefits of a free-flowing river outweighed the benefits of the dam and ordered its removal.
The Natural Resources Council, among the environmental groups fighting for the dam’s removal, notes that striped bass, alewives and other native sea-run fish are flourishing in the additional 17 miles of free flowing river.
Paddlers in canoes and kayaks and anglers with their fishing gear have all become familiar sights in that stretch of river.
Ft. Halifax Dam on the Sebasticook is slated to be removed next year to open up miles more of the river to sea-run fish.
Certainly, water quality in the Kennebec is so much the better for the efforts of people such as Muskie and Lund.
“There is still pollution from municipal sewage and pulp-and-paper mills,” NRCM Bennett said. “The paper mills still have some old-fashioned technology, and have made only cosmetic changes since 1997. We don’t have very well-performing pulp-and-paper mills in Maine compared to Europe, in general.”
Bennett said the Androscoggin is a river that still does not meet standards. Paper mills have made only cosmetic changes to their systems since 1997, he said.
“We need a follow-up to the Clean Water Act,” Bennett said. “There is big room for improvement, and the pulp mills are still the guilty party.”
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said the Clean Water Act was a reflection on the society of the era.
“It was part of that whole earth movement and it made us even more aware of the importance of those waters,” said Strauch, an Exeter resident who holds a master’s degree in silverculture from the University of Maine.
Strauch said that when the log drives ended, it forced the logging industry to respond by building more roads in unorganized territories, at great cost.
“They don’t call it the Golden Road for nothing,” he said, referring to the 100-mile roadway that cuts through the state’s north woods.
“That was the major impact — it forced us to land-based transportation of raw materials, and more regulations on buffer strips near streams.”
Strauch argued that Maine’s mills are putting forth a good effort. “I think they’re doing a great job in terms of water quality,” he said. “They’re keeping up with the latest science in terms of the treatment of effluence. The proof is in the quality of the water. We’re stewards of a resource, and that’s what we want to be known as.”