Upstream towns worry they’ll pay the price for a cleaner Androscoggin River


RUMFORD – For decades, Rumford served as a poster child for the nightmarish pollution that turned the Androscoggin River into a foaming, dye-filled mess with fumes so awful they peeled the paint off homes.

It’s not like that anymore.

These days, there are trout, bass and beavers enjoying clear water in Rumford that’s becoming attractive to kayakers and canoeists.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Rumford officials, like many along the river, worry that some are in such a hurry to declare the river is in better shape that they might impose regulatory measures that could stifle existing businesses, push up the cost of upgrading sewage treatment plants and prevent new companies from coming to town.

Prodded by downstream communities that include Lewiston and Auburn, legislators in Augusta are considering whether to reclassify the river from level C to a considerably better level B, at least from the Gulf Island Dam to the sea. A higher classification brings with it more regulation.

Since 97% of the river’s water from Lewiston to Merrymeeting Bay flows downstream past the dam, there isn’t much doubt that improving water quality on the lower section of the Androscoggin requires upgrades upstream.

George O’Keefe, Rumford economic development director Steve Collins/Sun Journal

For George O’Keefe, Rumford’s economic development director, it’s “beyond disappointing” that nobody advocating the change even bothered to ask his town what it thought of the idea.

“No one, not Lewiston, not Brunswick, or any of the towns” that border the river where the higher classification would be imposed should the bill pass next year “appreciates the improved conditions on the river more than the people of Rumford who lived with the worst impacts of its pollution for many decades,” he said.

O’Keefe and Rumford’s town manager, Stacy Carter, said they have a proposal that everybody who cares about the river ought to get behind as a better first step.

Since the state Department of Environmental Protection says it’s not sure whether it is even possible to make the water quality higher, the Rumford pair said it is obvious that before plunging forward, the state and communities involved need more information.

The state’s river modeling data now “does not confirm whether the additional regulatory measures will have any effect whatsoever on water quality in the lower Androscoggin River,” Charles Kraske, manager of environmental services for Pixelle Specialty Solutions’ Androscoggin Mill in Jay, said.

O’Keefe said that live monitoring stations should be set up along the river that could test the water day after day, month after month through all sorts of conditions to determine what exactly is going on. The data collected could be posted as it is gathered, like air quality monitoring stations that exist in Maine, he said.

With far more complete data, he said, scientists “will be able to better model the river” and have a much easier time figuring what, if anything, can or should be done to continue a decades-long cleanup that began when Rumford native Edmund Muskie pushed through the Clean Water Act half a century ago.

“His desk is in my office,” Carter said. “We’re all committed to having a clean river.”

“We need better data and better science,” O’Keefe said.

It isn’t clear how costly or practical it would be to establish water quality monitoring stations. They would face far more operational complications than an air quality monitoring site.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee agreed recently to put off consideration until next year of a bill by state Sen. Ned Claxton, an Auburn Democrat, to switch the river’s classification as it flows past Lewiston.

That creates some breathing room that Rumford leaders hope will be used to try to bring together everyone, upstream and downstream, to figure out what makes sense to do next as part of the long-term effort to restore the river.

CLAXTON EXPLAINS THE BILL

State Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn

Claxton told the committee that his measure “started off as a simple bill” aimed at recognizing “the region’s accomplishments in cleaning up the Androscoggin River.”

“The hope was that an improvement in the classification would attract more recreational use to the river, boating and fishing in particular, and improve its appeal to tourists,” he said.

The senator said he never intended to require regulators to reclassify a river “that didn’t meet the requirements” for a Class B one. Nor, he said, did he have any desire to “negatively impact upstream businesses.”

“It was about promoting the Lower Androscoggin,” Claxton said.

“There are definitely aspects of reclassification that I do not understand,” he said, adding that “I am now aware of how complicated a process this is.”

Claxton speculated that “maybe the best course is to post signs saying ‘Meets Class B standards’ and not to depend on a process that uses the current model” that may require the types of regulation that Rumford and other upstream communities fear.

RUMFORD FRETS

The paper mill in Rumford from the Androscoggin River. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

For Dean Gilbert of Rumford, who testified on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Claxton’s bill “represents an effort by affluent southern and coastal Mainers to impose unnecessary and unwarranted restrictions on poorer rural Mainers and our communities.”

He said if a section of the river is reclassified, the entire river is going to wind up failing to meet the standard, a consequence that would likely mean that no new or expanded discharge levels would be allowed.

O’Keefe said Rumford and adjoining Mexico are trying “to regrow our population” back to their post-World War II high of about 15,000 people. That’s nearly 50% more than it has now.

The town has a costly sewage treatment plant upgrade in the planning stage and is trying to figure out how to pay for it.

If future discharges required even more expensive measures, it would have a drastic impact on local finances, O’Keefe said, and may well “limit any new business.”

Roland Arsenault, superintendent of the Rumford-Mexico Sewerage District, said if the bill is enacted then “many upstream dischargers, whether public or private, will be required to take significant and expensive steps to ensure compliance with the Class B standard,” even though the DEP has said it doesn’t think it’s possible to reach Class B levels constantly along the lower section of the river.

“If nearly the entire river is in noncompliance, how can any new or expanded discharges be allowed?” Arsenault asked. “This bill provides dubious benefits to some while imposing certain costs and economic constraints on others.”

Kevin Averill of Mexico, president of the United Steelworkers local at Nine Dragons paper company, said he opposes the river reclassification because it “threatens our mill’s recovery, its future and the future of our members and their families.”

“We hear a lot of statements these days about environmental and economic justice,” Averill told the legislative committee, “but this bill is a rejection of such ideas.”

O’Keefe and Carter said proponents of the bill, at the very least, ought to listen to their concerns.

“People should talk to us,” O’Keefe said. “We’re here.”

IT’S NOT JUST RUMFORD

State Sen. Lisa Keim, a Dixfield Republican, said she is concerned the proposal “would stifle economic development all along the length of the river.”

The town manager of Gorham, New Hampshire, which sits astride the river and has a paper mill of its own, is among those who are worried.

Denise Vallee said that White Mountain Paper bought the struggling mill and “have a respectable plan to stabilize its operations for the long-term, with the potential for growth and expansion.”

But if Maine requires an upgrade of the river, Vallee said, the mill will be pushed out of compliance and is much-needed jobs threatened.

George Bald, a former longtime commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, called the Gorham mill critical to the region’s economy.

He said Claxton’s bill would “impose unnecessary costs” and “restrict community and business growth” for the area – all without actually helping the river achieve the Class B status that supporters seek, he added.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake. R-Turner

“I always fought to improve our economy, and protect our environment,” Bald said. “This proposed legislation is harmful to our states’ economies and does not improve our environments.”

In Jay, the concerns are shared by the Androscoggin Mill.

“Uncertainty is the last thing our mill needs,” Kraske, its environmental services chief, said.

State Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a Turner Republican and the GOP leader in the Senate, initially co-sponsored Claxton’s bill. But he’s changed his mind about it.

Timberlake said he’s come to see it has “a number of ramifications and negative impacts” on towns along the river, including financial burdens that “will put a tremendous strain on many communities” if it is approved.

He said decisions about when and how to reclassify the water quality of the Androscoggin should be left to the DEP, which also opposes the bill after repeatedly concluding the river doesn’t yet meet the criteria for an upgrade.

The DEP reviews classifications to Maine’s waters every three years and upgrades waterways when the data supports the move.

For now, critics of the proposal said, it’s better to watch and wait.

O’Keefe said better data will give the agency the ability to wield a scalpel to cope with issues it finds. The bill, he said, would operate more like a sledgehammer, smashing stuff that ought not be touched.

“Let’s work within the process and deliver something better,” O’Keefe said.


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