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50 years after the Clean Water Act, Muskie's Androscoggin River is "fishable and swimmable"

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
People gather overlooking the Androscoggin River in Lewiston, Maine.

Cheering, cowbell, and applause could be heard on the banks of the Androscoggin River in Lewiston on Saturday as high school crew teams battled a powerful headwind and each other for the fastest rowing times in the second annual Riverfest Regatta. A few decades ago a scene like this could only have been imagined.

"We drove in on Lisbon Street and you could smell the river and I was pregnant and I had a baby and I thought, 'Oh my God, oh my God.' I started crying. I just started crying," said state Rep. Margaret Craven.

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
High school crew teams battle a powerful headwind on the Androscoggin River in Lewiston on Saturday June 19 at the second annual Riverfest Regatta.

That was her powerful first impression of the Androscoggin the day she and her husband moved to Lewiston nearly 50 years ago. Back then, Craven said the water was yellow and brown, laden with toxic chemicals from paper mills, sewage treatment plants and farms and so devoid of oxygen that fish and other organisms couldn't survive. The stench of rotten eggs was overwhelming. Peter Rubins of the Grow LA River Working Group also recalls eight-foot drifts of yellow-brown foam at the base of the Great Falls that separate the cities of Lewiston and Auburn.

"It was a mess, literally one of the top ten polluted rivers in the country. And we feel that with the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and Muskie coming from Rumford that it would be the poster child for the Clean Water Act from what it was 50 years ago to what it is today," Rubins said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important environmental laws ever passed. The Clean Water Act, which sets water quality standards and requires permits for discharges, was championed by Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. And one of the big motivators for Muskie? The Androscoggin River, one of the ten most polluted rivers in the country in the 1960s and 1970s that ran through his hometown of Rumford. The river has come a long way in five decades.

Today the river supports boating, fishing and (in some places) even swimming. There are bass fishing tournaments held on the river. Rubins is among those who pushed for reclassification of the Androscoggin from the state's lowest rating, C, to a Class B. And recently, Maine lawmakers approved the upgrade on the southernmost section from Lisbon Falls to Brunswick. But there are still parts of the Androscoggin River that do not meet Clean Water Act standards. At an impoundment known as Gulf Island Pond, for example, oxygen must be pumped into the water to keep fish alive. The late Sen. Muskie knew that getting compliance with the Act would be difficult.

"You've got to spend money. You've got to impose standards and you've got to enforce them. There's no easy way to do it," Muskie said.

Growing up in the papermaking town of Rumford, not far from the Androscoggin, Muskie, a Democrat, was well aware of industry's grip on the region and of the need to build bipartisan support for his landmark Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. But first he learned everything he could about air and water pollution.

As chair of the Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution, he held lengthy public hearings and generated an extensive public record, said Professor Joel Goldstein of St. Louis University, who is writing a biography of Muskie. And he did so in an inclusive, collaborative way that seems extraordinary in the current political climate. Goldstein, who was part of a recent Bates College discussion about Muskie, said the Clean Water Act passed the Senate unanimously.

"And when President Nixon vetoed the measure in October of 1972, right before the November election, the Senate overrode his veto in a bipartisan vote 52-12 with many Republicans, including conservative Republicans, standing with Muskie," Goldstein said.

The legislation spelled out ambitious goals for water quality improvements by factories, farmers and municipalities. It placed rigorous demands on polluters and it was underscored by the idea that all discharges into waterways are unlawful unless authorized by permit. But the Clean Water Act alone was not enough to clean up the Androscoggin River. Peter Rubins said state legislation, including a bill to limit dioxin, a bill to limit phosphorus and one to limit color, odor and foam were also needed.

"And those three state bills set the standard for all the water quality in all the state rivers," Rubins said.

More than 15 years ago, the state's largest environmental group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, filed a federal lawsuit against International Paper for polluting the Androscoggin. A year later, it was dismissed by the court for technical reasons. The group said there's still more to be done to protect Muskie's river from wastewater, pesticides, and other pollutants. But there's no denying the improvements that Margaret Craven and many others have seen with their own eyes.

"The changes have been fabulous. I love living in Lewiston. I love how lively it is, how colorful it is and I see youngsters, even this morning, going down there to fish," Craven said.

Organizers of the Riverfest say their hope is that more people will recognize that the Androscoggin River is no longer a river to hold your nose at, it's something everyone can enjoy.

The audio from Ed Muskie is courtesy of the Muskie archives at Bates College.