That Mess On The Prestile

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“Vahlsing certainly is prominent, embarrassingly prominent many say, in Democratic ‘big occasions,’ ” writes columnist Bill Caldwell in the Maine Sunday Telegram . “His planes and limousines dance attendance on Maine Democrats at conventions. His ringside tables at fund raising Democratic dinners are filled with Maine Democrats. His hospitality suites are free food and drink for Maine Democrats. He is conspicuous as a ‘big spender’ for Democrats … His influence appears strong, especially in the House. Certainly Governor [Kenneth M.] Curtis, Senator Muskie and Representative [William D.] Hathaway are friends of his. George Mitchell, Democratic National Committeeman [and a former assistant of Muskie’s], is Vahlsing’s lawyer.”

In 1960 “Freddie” Vahlsing applied for a license to discharge wastes from his new potato-processing plant at Easton into the Prestile. In his application he agreed to provide proper treatment before discharging wastes or “cease operation.” The license was granted by thestate. Theoretically Vahlsing’s plant was obliged to regulate its discharges to conform to the stream’s B classification. (Each waterway in Maine has a classification, ranging from A, which is fit for drinking, to D, which may be realistically defined as an open sewer; the Prestile’s B classification certified its water as suitable for the propagation of fish and, after treatment, for use as drinking water.)

As any homemaker knows, it is extremely unpleasant to be in the vicinity of potatoes that have spoiled. Vahlsing’s plant prepares a variety of potato products including frozen French fries, hash browns, and other rcady-to-use items. The waste parts of the potatoes are supposed to be treated before being discharged into the stream, a process that includes settling out the solids and chemically treating the liquid residues.

“We feel the same as you do, that these rivers and streams should be protected,” Vahlsing had told the state officials who approved his application to discharge wastes into the Prestile.

They took him at his word, to their subsequent discomfort. By 1962 fish had begun to die in noticeable numbers in the once flourishing trout stream. Easton’s summer swimming program was cancelled. The Maine Water Improvement Commission reported that Vahlsing was providing “inadequate treatment” for the plant’s wastes. Between that time and 1965 the W.I.C. noted thirty-one violations of the stream’s B classification by wastes from the Vahlsing plant. The Prestile’s quality was B only on the W.I.C.’s books; in fact, it had become an open sewer.

“It’s a dead stream,” a Fish and Game Department official told a reporter. “It couldn’t be any deader. You could grow trout better on the main street of Augusta than you could up there.”

Vahlsing continued to deny the charges, contending that his waste treatment plant was totally adequate. W.I.C. technicians disagreed and said that the plant was not working properly because of bad design.

Pressure began to build up on Vahlsing to mend his ways. The Water Improvement Commission asked the state’s attorney general, Richard J. Dubord, to take legal action against the Vahlsing company. Residents of Mars Hill, which lies below Easton on the Prestile, complained of the “nuisance conditions” created by the stream. The smell, they claimed, was intolerable, while the paint on their houses had blistered and blackened. The worst indignity of all was the realization that during the 1950*3 Mars Hill, with a population of only 2,100, had been obliged by the state to assume an indebtedness of $260,000 in bonds to build a municipal sewage treatment plant. The plant was designed to help upgrade the Prestile to a B classification.

Local people circulated petitions through the town, asking the governor for relief. Because some of Mars Hill’s residents were employees of Vahlsing, the sentiment against pollution there was by no means unanimous, and several copies are said to have been mysteriously destroyed. Nonetheless, 420 residents signed the petition.

Until this point the situation on the Prestile differed little from that of any other small waterway where pollution can be traced to a single dominant source. Justice may be expected to take its course if public opinion is insistent. But now another element entered the picture. It was created by Congress in the form of the Sugar Act of 1962, which provided for the expansion of sugar beet production in various regions of the country.

One of the regions in which Congress was interested was Maine’s Aroostook County. Potato farming is considered a boom-or-bust business, and Congress believed that sugar beets might stabilize agriculture in this area. Under the terms of the act, Maine was allotted an annual crop of 33,000 acres of sugar beets and nearly $7,000,000 in loans to build a refinery to process the beets.