Sunday, May 06, 2007

Dirty water

[The former IP Mill in Lisbon Falls (now Knight-Celotex)]

[Open River on the Androscoggin; Not much recreation going on]

[There are more signs, however that people are using the river, recreationally]

[One of many beautiful open stretches on the river]

The state is at a crucial crossroads, economically. While some in Augusta grasp the gravity of our choice, I’m fearful that far too many are locked into the old mentality that accepts jobs—any jobs—as a panacea for their constituents. In my world (Baumerworld?), politicians care about their communities and in particular, the communities that they represent.

The Verso Corporation is asking that they not be required to meet the higher standards that various advocacy groups and others are asking for. While the scientific data seems to support the need for stricter standards, Verso is taking issue with the science. In a scenario that is all too familiar in Maine and elsewhere, the issue is being played as the environment versus jobs. As the case plays out, politicians are treading carefully, but if history is any indication, these so-called representatives will side with the corporations, rather than the communities that use the river for something other than a pool to dump their waste.

Rather than carrying the water for multinational corporations, water that in Verso’s case, would be significantly more polluted, these “representatives” need to focus on what are Maine’s strengths. We need to move beyond the feudal mentality that has existed for far too long in the Pine Tree state, where we allow the “kings of industry and commerce” to control every damn important decision made. Just take a look at our wage scale, compared to our neighbors to our south and then tell me that business works in the interest of Maine people.

Verso talks a good game when you speak with them. They talk about caring for the community, being a good corporate citizen—all the things that their marketing people script for them to say. Interestingly, many of their managers are “from away” and know very little about the history of Maine—beyond the fact that Mainers still know how to work, by and large and that they have a captive labor market to draw from in the Western Maine locale where their mill sits.

The reality of the paper business is that it is in flux. For all their talk of commitment, before the residents of Androscoggin and Franklin Counties grant Verso carte blanche in what they can dump in the river, let’s keep in mind the history of papermaking in Maine for the past 35 to 40 years. Mills, bought by large multinationals have fared poorly. In town after town across our state, these companies came in, got concessions from municipalities (while trumpeting jobs) and in most cases, rarely lasted for more than a decade before moving operations to a place where they could shave costs (or environmental standards) and left Mainers standing in the unemployment line.

Maybe Verso is an animal of a different stripe, I don’t know. All I know is if it walks like a corporation and talks like a corporation, then in all likelihood, in the end, it will behave like a corporation and protect its bottom line every time.

The Androscoggin, once one of the most polluted rivers nationwide, has gotten better since 1972, when Rumford native, the late Senator Edmund Muskie, was one of the authors of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. Yet, for all the progress that’s been made from the days when the river, filled with chemical-laced foam, would occasionally catch fire and peel paint of the houses bordering the river in mill towns like Rumford and Jay, the river still does not meet the minimum federal standards, or even the state standards for water quality. In fact, the Androscoggin is still one of the dirtiest rivers in the state, used by the mills along it merely for their own industrial needs. Gulf Island Pond, the 14-mile stretch of slow moving water above Lewiston/Auburn, fails to meet even the state’s lowest water quality standards. According to DEP, there have been no significant improvements in water quality in the last decade in Gulf Island Pond.

So who is responsible for the Androscoggin’s continued pollution issues? According to DEP, it is the paper mills, like NewPage in Rumford, Verso in Jay and other paper producers upriver, which account for 83 percent of the oxygen depleting pollution entering the river and 77 percent of the phosphorus pollution sent to its waters. Phosphorus is a nutrient pollutant that causes algae blooms (green slime on the river) and depletes oxygen in the water.

Rather than merely exploiting a wonderful resource for their own profit and industrial uses, Verso and the other mills along its banks could invest in modern pollution prevention technology that would both lower manufacturing costs and allow them to meet water quality standards, at least so said the McCubbin Report, in the fall of 2003.

The report stated, “There are many technologies and operating practice that have been in use for some time in profitable, operating mills which can potentially be used to reduce the discharges of pollutants that affect the Androscoggin River. These include personnel training, improved process control for phosphorus addition, correction of weaknesses in existing waste treatment systems, recovery of unplanned mill process losses, oxygen delignification and replacement of aeration tanks in the mills’ waste water treatment plants.”

Maine’s rivers have an important role to play in the state’s future economic growth. The city of Lewiston, which borders the Androscoggin, is developing a beautiful riverside gateway complex to the city. Amazingly, there is talk about luxury condominiums being built overlooking Great Falls. On the Auburn side of the river, the Hilton Garden Inn has been built, attracting guests from all over. Nearby is Gritty McDuff’s with an outdoor deck overlooking the river during the warmer months. There is a new river walk and beautiful Railroad Park, providing an important greenway area for Little Canada and that part of town bordering the Androscoggin. The river is a key part of Lewiston’s continued economic growth, so for Verso to use the argument that they should be allowed to continue to dump phosphorous and other chemicals in the river shows an inability, or unwillingness on their part to recognize that the river is a key part of the area’s revitalization and future.

What bothered me the most was Verso’s shameless attempt to use its very own workers to do their bidding, bidding, by the way that will be quickly forgotten as soon as Verso hits economic hard times and has to lay off some of these same workers. Bussing them to Thursday’s hearing, the general tenor of their testimony was that if the more stringent laws are passed, then they’ll be out of a job.

I’m not unsympathetic to their plight. My own father was a paper worker for over 40 years. During that time, I saw him work swing shift, holidays and do pretty much everything his employer asked of him. For his efforts, his employer of 30 years closed its doors, after seeing ownership change hands regularly over his last decade there. He hung on, taking a cut in pay in his mid-50s and limped across the finish line to retirement.

My father was a product of another time, a time when a high school diploma and a will to work, coupled with loyalty served a Maine worker fairly well. Those times have changed and sadly, many of these workers who spoke Thursday, taking their cues from the corporate suite, don’t realize it.

While mills like NewPage in Rumford and Verso in Jay pay well and offer employment opportunities, I’m not convinced they’re here for the long haul. Residents along the Androscoggin’s banks would do well to demand the more stringent regulations. By doing so, they are guaranteeing the long term sustainability of the river, for recreation and the enjoyment of those who are committed to the area for the foreseeable future.

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