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Passamaquoddy Tribe Re-Acquires Land Whose Former Owner Was Called 'Maine’s Most Wanted Polluter'

fred passamaquody.jpg
Fred Bever
Maine Public
Passamaquoddy Tribe members Donald Soctomah Jr., Donald Soctomah Sr. and Dale Mitchell stand on fill above the site of an ancient tribal village in Meddybemps, Maine.

The Passamaquoddy tribe will soon regain control of the site of an ancient fishing village located at a remote lake in Meddybemps, which in the tribe's language means "place of many alewives." The site's more recent history was as a dumping grounds for toxic military waste, but tribe members have turned it into a park, and they are working with conservationists to restore historic fish populations on the river below. That's thanks to a long and successful collaboration among the tribe, state and federal governments, conservationists, and the descendants of a man once dubbed "Maine's most wanted polluter."

Last week a big excavator put the final touches on a dig-site by the headwaters of the Denny's River, where clean fill has replaced hundreds of square yards of contaminated soil. That capped an era of pollution that started 75 years ago.

Over their lifetimes, Meddybemps selectman Peter Trouant and local resident Jeff Orchard have watched the site's metamorphosis from a rambling, toxic salvage yard to toxic waste dump, archeological trove and to a reclaimed tribal property.

Orchard grew up just across the river and he fondly recalls Harry Smith, who in 1946 erected a hydro-electric turbine here that became the foundation for the Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative. When Orchard was a kid, he says "Old Harry" let him fire up the system.

"Old Harry used to let me come in and turn the dial to get the thing opened up and watch the water go faster down the river and hear the turbine wind up and then we'd walk out to the street and throw a switch and a great big blue flame (sparked) at the top of the pole when the electricity started going through the system. It was a lot of fun for a kid that was 12 or 13 years old," Orchard said.

So was clambering through the fields of military material old Harry was collecting for his salvage operation, Eastern Surplus — much of it auctioned off by the military after the big war.

"He was bringing in giant transformers, probably 1200 of these huge transformers and he would pull the drain out of the bottom of them — about 300-feet that way — and drain the stuff into the dirt. People wondered why the salmon stopped coming up. Turns out they don't like PCBs in their drinking water," Orchard said.

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Brett Ciccotelli
The old Denny’s River turbine is hoisted away.

By the 1970s, though, when Harry Smith's son, Harry Jr., joined the operation, tough pollution laws were being enacted. A local selectman with a roguish reputation, Harry Jr. didn't really adapt.

"The laws were changing and he ended up spending some time in jail because he was ornery enough to say 'no, I'm not doing that," Orchard said.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials say that over the 80s and 90s, Harry Smith Jr. presided over and added to an illegal toxic waste operation that spanned four sites around Meddybemps.

"There was a tractor trailer that was full of calcium carbide that actually started melting the side of the trailer as DEP was doing its inspection," said assistant attorney general Leanne Robbins, who prosecuted Smith for pollution violations in 2003. "There were 300 trailers and box cars full of tires and waste paints, the PCB-containing transformers, acids, adhesives and pesticides."

Not to mention bandeleros holding live ammunition, and a radioactive nuclear generator that investigators reportedly found in the woods.

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Fred Bever
Maine Public
Downeast Salmon Federation biologist Brett Ciccotelli, right, and Department of Marine Resources salmon restoration specialist Ernie Atkinson at the Denny’s River in Meddybemps.

The federal government eventually spent some $27 million cleaning up the sites, with the Pentagon tacitly acknowledging its role by providing much of the funds.

Robbins tried Harry Smith Jr. in 2003 and he was sentenced to a year in jail. But he eluded the authorities for more than a year, adding to his reputation as a sort of local folk hero.

"There definitely was support for him and hostility for the "unreasonable" state people that were coming in and putting him out of business," Robbins said.

Even some descendants of the site's original users say they owe Smith a kind of debt. Passamaquoddy environmental steward Dale Mitchell worked for Smith decades ago.

"There was no rules, no laws against it at that point in time, so when I look back at it and say 'well, Harry did this here'...  and that brought us here. So in some respect I almost have to say thank you to Harry," Mitchell said.

Mitchell explains that over the years, cleanup workers turned up artifacts that indicated evidence of an ancient, seasonal gathering place, a fishing village which appears in the tribe's oral traditions.

"N'tolonepemk, loosely translated 'my ancestors' place, my relatives' place' - interchangeable I would say," Mitchell said.

"This is a Passamaquoddy Village site; it's always been a village site," said tribal historian Donald Soctomah, who joined Mitchell there last week.

"The tribe would come here certain times of the year, and it just moved with the seasons, followed the run of fish. This is a great spot to be to net alewives and the other fish that come up river," Soctomah said.

Soctomah helped lead an archeological dig which revealed arrowheads, pottery shards, and worked stones that forebears brought here from as far away as Labrador. One dates back at least 8,000 years, he said.

"Some of them, when the tribal members found an artifact they'd get a big grin on their face. They knew that their ancestors 10,000 years ago or 8,000 years ago made that. It's just a strong feeling," Soctomah said.

They pinpointed cooking and sleeping areas of the village, and an embankment where over the millennia countless alewives, tomcod and salmon were hauled ashore, leaving behind stains that persist to this day.

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Fred Bever
Maine Public
Fill from the old power station.

After the dig, Dale Mitchell and the tribe spent several years restoring the five-acre site, which now has a bucolic, park-like feel. And they are working with the Department of Marine Resources and the Downeast Salmon Federation to re-establish historic alewife runs to the lake.

That work starts in the Denny's river, where the hydroelectric facility once constricted upstream fish passage. Earlier this month, workers removed most of the installation.

"You can see it's still pretty constricted with concrete. It's a lot better than a week ago, but there's still some work to do," said Federation biologist Brett Ciccotelli. He said in a good spring, tens of thousands of alewives stack up just below the facility.

"The fish that were coming here, this was kind of the end of the ride. You get that big charge of fish and then they would just be sitting here waiting, turning around and maybe spawning out, but they weren't getting to the lake," Ciccotelli said.

By next spawning season, he says, the hope is that the number of alewives who make it past here to an upstream fishway and then into the lake will grow exponentially, and add hundreds of thousands of spawn to the population.

Ciccotelli points to the opposite embankment, where the earthy remains of the powerhouse foundation bristle with metal salvage that Harry Sr. used for structure.

"We have an axle, we have like a steering column, a ball joint, some railroad rail, just other bits of rebar and pipe, chrome bumpers. Everything would be pre-1946, so we're looking at early automotive history laid out in strata for us, like Detroit's Grand Canyon or something," Ciccotelli said.

If the tribal dig recorded a span of eight or nine millennia, this provides a tighter, more modest archeology of the 20th century. Together they document an arc of humanity's relationship with the natural world, from integration to exploitation and now, some measure of restoration.

Harry James Smith Jr. died on August 11, 2017.

The state took ownership of the contaminated sites back in the 2000s. It's returned much of the tribal village area to the Passamaquoddies, but one portion still requires a legislative resolve for the final transfer. DEP officials expect that next year. 

Harry Smith Jr. died in 2017. A local obituary lists nine surviving children. One of his sons continues to run a salvage yard in town, and the old hydroelectric turbine sits there now. He declined to be interviewed, but Ciccotelli says Chip Smith and his siblings have worked and are working with the other stakeholders to help bring the project to fruition.

Updated: September 24, 2021 at 11:31 AM EDT
This piece has been updated to mention the Department of Marine Resource's involvement in restoring an alewife run.
A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.