MAINE VOICES: Charles M. Carroll
Until a few days ago, performance of the political leadership at at Maine Department of Environmental Protection had reached new lows in the matter of the Androscoggin River.
The reputation of the agency was seriously harmed. But with what may turn out to be a decisive move announced by DEP on Nov. 30, better prospects beckon, although they are by no means certain.
More than three decades ago, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie guided the Clean Water Act through Congress. He said it was the abysmal condition of the Androscoggin that inspired him to act. Now, 33 years later, the other major rivers in Maine are well on their way to impressive cleanup. But the Androscoggin, while somewhat cleaner than 25 years ago, remains the dirtiest major river in Maine and still fails to meet Class C river standards, the lowest category.
A bill passed this year further reduced the standards for the Androscoggin – even below Class C. This fall the current DEP commissioner, Dawn Gallagher, approved new permits for the two Androscoggin paper mills in Maine that were the feeblest of attempts to clean up the river.
But this past week, the DEP’s deputy commissioner announced an apparent about-face, based on what he said was new informa- tion about the International Paper mill in Jay.
The department, he said, had “lost confidence” in the permit it had issued for IP, by far the largest single source of pollution in the river. Depite IP’s protests, he said the permits would be revisited and likely modified to reflect a new understanding that the mill could clean up faster.
The next few weeks will show whether Gov. Baldacci and the DEP have the will to withstand the pressure and protest from the mills and their legislative supporters.
This is not the first time that comments from the Blaine House or DEP have been encouraging about protecting the Androscoggin. But each time, hopes have been dashed as the paper industry and its supporters flexed their political muscle.
The stakes are high for both the environment and the economy of the Androscoggin. A courageous stand by the state could, for the first time in years, do something truly positive for jobs in the mills.
Contrary to the dismal scenario painted by mill owners, who say they’d have to shut down if made to clean up, mill workers would actually have more secure jobs. It is well documented by industry experts that when mills reduce pollution at the source, they also become more efficient and cost-competitive.
There are mills in this country and abroad that produce almost no pollution. For example, paper produced in Finland with virtually zero pollution can frequently be bought in Maine for less than paper produced at the IP plant in Jay – despite high wages in Finland and ocean shipping costs.
Political leadership in Maine for years has been unable to grasp the reality of the jobs/cleanup relationship. It took IP itself to demonstrate the folly of state policy that has allowed mills to run outdated, polluting operations. This past summer, IP announced a massive restructuring which may mean the sale of its plant in Jay. IP said it wants to concentrate its resources on more efficient plants.
More will need to be done to ensure a thriving Androscoggin Valley economy. The governor must become proactive about the possible sale of the IP plant. In Southern states, where IP restructuring will affect local economies, governments and community groups are already searching for ways to replace jobs that may be lost.
The state must begin now to search for a buyer, one that will make the investment to meet stricter water quality standards and create a more efficient plant to access and compete in the American market.
And why not provide financial incentives to such a buyer? The recent record of retaining industrial jobs in Maine is a dismal one. The time is ripe for the governor to reverse that trend.
If the prospects for the river and the economy are to be realized, the governor, the DEP and its oversight arm, the Board of Environmental Protection, must look unflinchingly at present realities.
Two principles must be respected: Decisions must be made on scientific and legal grounds and not on short-term political considerations; and standards for the Androscoggin must be no different than for other Class C rivers.
Regulations based on these principles are essential. Only then can we have a cleaner Androscoggin, thriving riverside cities and towns and a more secure base of good-paying jobs in the mills.
– Special to the Telegram
Charles M.Carroll of Topsham is a founding member of the Androscoggin River Alliance.