That Mess On The Prestile

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The traveller who leaves Maine on Route 6 and enters New Brunswick at Centreville encounters a curious monument beside the road only fifty feet inside the Canadian border. It is a large concrete slab, ten feet tall and tapering toward its flat, unadorned top. A plaque on its face bears the following inscription:

THIS INTERNATIONAL

MONUMENT

SYMBOLIZES THE BEGINNING OF THE CITIZENS’ WAR ON POLLUTION IN WESTERN NEW BRUNSWICK AND EASTERN MAINE, AND MARKS THE SITE WHERE AROUSED CITIZENS BUILT AN EARTHEN DAM TO STEM THE FLOW OF POLLUTION FROM THE VAHLSING INC. COMPLEX IN EASTON, MAINE

9 JULY 1968

THIS DATE MARKED THE BEGINNING OF

OUR WAR ON POLLUTION

THE WAR CONTINUES

An interested traveller must look closely to detect the remains of the storied dam. The ground slopes sharply down from the road through alder thickets to a puny stream, the Prestile, which, considering its notoriety, is not much to see, like those rivers in classical tales that remind tourists in modern Greece of an inconsequential creek back home. On the far side of the stream some earth has been gouged out of the bank. Limbs of a few small fallen trees interrupt the water’s surface. And this is all that remains of a dam that endured about as long as the May flies that annually appear and mate over the stream.

If the traveller continues a little farther down the road into New Brunswick, he may also encounter Robert Caines, who is chiefly responsible for both the dam and its monument. Of middle age and placid disposition, Caines is an unlikely crusader. He was once mayor of Centreville and worked as an electrician there.

But Centreville has fewer than five hundred people, and correspondingly few walls to be rewired and toasters to be repaired. Recently Caines followed the path taken by most of Centreville’s wage earners and went to work for a nearby food-processing company on the St. John River. His choice of jobs, however, was also dictated by an idealism not often found in a middle-aged man who has dabbled in politics: eager to learn more about the subject to which he was first drawn in anger, Caines operates the company’s waste treatment plant.

“We’re going to prove at this plant that industries don’t have to go on polluting the rivers,” he says.

Caines has thrown himself into his job as if while working to clean up the St. John River he is striking a blow as well at what conservationists call “that mess on the Prestile.” The mess has its origins in cities far from Centreville. It can be traced through Maine to the capital at Augusta, and beyond to Washington. It is the inevitable issue of the enduring love affair carried on in Maine between politicians and the leaders of industry; and prominent in the romance appear such names as Maine’s former governor John H. Reed and Senator Edmund S. Muskie. In its restricted flow the pretty little Prestile carries as neat a morality tale as the greatest rivers on the continent.

The stream rises near Fort Fairfield in northern Maine, flows south and east for twenty-five miles through the towns of Easton, Mars Hill, Blaine, and Bridgewater, and enters New Brunswick at Centreville. From Centreville it winds another ten miles through a pleasant valley to Florenceville, where it contributes its waters, and a great deal besides, to the St. John River.

The stream is both pretty and productive when not overburdened with pollution. In 1955 a report of the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Game described the Prestile’s cool shallow flow and the fish it supported: “Prestile Stream has been famous for its brook trout fishing for many years. … Trout of all sizes abound in most of the tributary streams, reflecting the excellent quality of the spawning, nursery and resident areas for this species.”

For many people sport or beauty is implicit in the concept of flowing water. But to others it suggests nothing more than it did to the emergent barbarians in medieval cities, who flung household wastes into the rainwater that ran through their narrow streets. Maine’s industrialists appear to share this inclination. The state’s major industries—pulp mills, potato-processing plants, tanneries, and woolen mills are gross polluters of its waterways.

Vahlsing, Incorporated, has been in the potato business for some thirty years. The company was well known in the potato fields of northern Maine’s Aroostook County when Fred H. Vahlsing opened his processing plant at Easton on the Prestile ten years ago. Though its main office is in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the company operates food-processing plants in several parts of the United States. Vahlsing himself is a plump, cigar-smoking extrovert who overwhelms friend and foe alike with hearty handshakes and grinning good humor. If his social style is vintage Ring Lardner, his political stance is unorthodox in Maine, where industrialists habitually stand with the Old Guard Republicans.