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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Androscoggin River Recovery

Air Date: Week of

Forty years ago, Northern New England's Androscoggin river was cited as one of the nation's ten dirtiest waterways. This was no surprise, considering that the surrounding towns and industries had been using the river as a waste-removal system for generations. More recently, the Androscoggin has been making a steady comeback. Wildlife is returning to the area. Ironically, however, the renewal of the river may bring with it a new set of potential environmental problems. Maine Public Radio's Andrea De Leon has the story.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Forty years ago, northern New England's Androscoggin River was officially designated as one of the nation's 10 dirtiest waterways. The listing was no surprise to the Maine and New Hampshire residents who live in the Androscoggin Valley. For generations their towns and industries had dumped their waste directly into the river. But today, the Androscoggin is staging a quiet comeback. And as Maine Public Radio's Andrea De Leon reports, the river's revival brings with it a new set of concerns.


DE LEON: On a muggy early morning, a group of canoeists gathered at a public boat launch in Bath, Maine, prepping their canoes and kayaks for the last leg of a trip that even a decade ago would have been almost unthinkable. They have traveled the Androscoggin River from its headwaters in northern New Hampshire to its meeting with the Kennebec River in southern Maine. Now, they were ready to complete a journey intended to highlight the recovery of Maine's dirtiest river.

MAN: Welcome everyone. I can't believe that this is all sort of coming to fruition and end after 19 of the best days of my life. (Laughs with others) And tomorrow I'll sleep.

DE LEON: The river is broad and fast, its currents changing with the tide as about 2 dozen paddlers head out from the municipal dock for the 12-mile journey to the sea. Their tiny boats incongruous in the shadow of a state-of- the-art destroyer under construction at nearby Bath Iron Works. For the paddlers who have made the entire trip, the shipyard is just the latest of many reminders of how New England's major rivers have served industry for more than 200 years.

(Horn honks; boats lowered into water)

DE LEON: But downstream from the shipyard there is remarkably little evidence of civilization. The tall waving grass along the banks is backed by a curtain of dark trees. A few homes and small lighthouses dot the bank. Seals and eagles fish in the brackish water.

MAN 1: Right up there is the osprey nest. Can you see right there?

MAN 2: Yeah.

MAN 1: Yeah, there it goes.

(A bird calls)

MAN 1: Wow.

DE LEON: Looking at the river today it is easy to forget the past. Once the Androscoggin ran red or blue with the dye waste of textile factories and tanneries upstream, its surface littered with the bark of the millions of logs it carried to paper mills and lumber companies. Bob Cummins is a retired journalist who's lived at the mouth of the waterway all his life. He wrote about the Androscoggin during the years in which it functioned as Maine's largest sewer.

CUMMINS: The waste decayed in the river and used up all the oxygen. And once the oxygen was gone the fish died. And the river went anaerobic, no oxygen, which meant that it stunk and fumes, sulfur dioxide fumes, would come off the water.

(Rowing continues)

DE LEON: At times in the 1960s, Mr. Cummins says those fumes coming from the paper mill waste that was discharged into the river got so thick that they reacted with the lead paint on the houses near the water. It was not unheard of, he says, for a white house to turn brown overnight. In 1970 historian Bud Warren was hired to ferry some boats up the Androscoggin. He can still point to the spot on a nautical chart where the filth of the river overwhelmed him.

WARREN: It was a very hot summer and a humid day like this. The end of the low, the ebbing tide. And there were bubbles, big bubbles and not froth but just something was working, and it would explode, and there were fumes coming out of the river. I got sick, physically sick, and vomited over the side of the boat at the smell, right up here.

DE LEON: With that kind of advertising it's no wonder few people built houses near the river, and that even today virtually all of the homes and businesses in the towns along the Androscoggin face away from the water. Mr. Warren says things began to change for the better after Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, a man born in the Androscoggin River mill town of Rumford, introduced the Clean Water Act. Its most immediate effect was to require treatment of municipal sewage. With surprising speed, the raw sewage began to disappear and industrial users were forced to clean up their effluent. But the Androscoggin's bad reputation remains. Mike Worthley works at the Mead Paper Mill. Growing up in Rumford, he says he avoided the river.

(Rowing continues)

WORTHLEY: I've never been around the Androscoggin till this trip, you know. I see it every day, I ride by it every day, but I never bother going in it.

DE LEON: Pollution remains a problem for the Androscoggin. Though its waters are cleaner and the smell is gone, dioxin and other persistent toxics remain a concern. Anglers are advised not to eat much of the fish they catch. Dams prevent the restoration of some of the historic fish runs upriver. And the Androscoggin's long-standing reputation as a flowing sewer means it may be decades before people trust it enough to make it a destination for swimmers or a cause for the anglers, who have lobbied to restore fish passage on Maine's other major rivers. But ironically, all those years of pollution have given the Androscoggin a kind of wilderness protection, leaving its banks largely free of camps and other development. Marcel Pollock of the Appalachian Mountain Club says cleaning up the river now leaves it vulnerable to other threats.

POLLOCK: That's because of the potential for development that is going to occur on the river as people can't afford any more, or the lakefront property is all developed or non-accessible. People will start focusing on the river. And we're seeing that already in some sections where we're seeing large houses go up.

(Oars returned to body of boat: wood on wood. A man sighs.)

DE LEON: The participants of the trek wrap up their journey at a dock in Phippsburg, inside of the spot where Samuel De Champlain first explored the waterway in 1605. Marcel Pollock hopes seeing canoes like these on the river will show residents of the Androscoggin Valley that the river, and the wilderness along its banks, are a treasure. But the communities all along the nearly 200-mile waterway need to work together to complete its recovery without opening the door to the kind of development that could destroy the river's wilderness quality. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea De Leon.



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