That Mess On The Prestile


Early in 1965 Vahlsing announced he would build just such a refinery (to cost $14,500,000) on the Prestile next to his potato-processing plant. He named his new venture Maine Sugar Industries. The Maine Water Improvement Commission commented that a beet refinery might very well add to the pollution problem created by Vahlsing’s potato operation. But the W.I.C. had not reckoned with the traditional bond between Maine’s politicians and its polluting industrialists. Legislators from Aroostook County rallied to Vahlsing’s support with the proposition that the Prestile’s classification be lowered from B to D, thus confirming officially its status as a sewer.


Maine’s conservationists and its more concerned news media immediately protested. Vahlsing’s friends replied that if the stream’s classification were not lowered, the federal government might not extend him the loans necessary to build the refinery and Maine would miss its chance at the sugar beet program.

Flamboyantly, Vahlsing rallied the legislators. He brought several hundred supporters from Aroostook County to a hearing on the bill at the state capital. Mrs. Charles McEvoy, president of the Maine League of Women Voters, has recalled Vahlsing’s performance at the legislative hearing.

“Mr. Vahlsing further admitted he expected to have his hands full with technical problems in the first few years of operation of a beet plant, and he didn’t want to have to think about the problems of sewage treatment,” Mrs. McEvoy said. “In fact, when pressed, he said it would be at least five years before he could get around to it. He pleaded that if sugar beets failed he might be in the business of selling second-hand sugar beet machinery or a building, but that there wouldn’t be much market for a secondhand treatment plant. He was asking the state of Maine to sacrifice a natural resource, to compromise its pollution abatement program in order to reduce the cost of a proposed … refinery and to reduce the loss if the plant should fail.”

Conservationists who spoke against the bill at the hearing found themselves subjected to Vahlsing’s relentless charm. In a typically dashing gesture he offered to take all seventy-five members of the League of Women Voters’ delegation to lunch in order to explain his position. The ladies politely declined. Early in the morning following the hearing, Vahlsing called Ezra James Briggs, a former legislative leader in Maine and an opponent of the bill.

“I had never even met the man,” Briggs says. “But he got me out of bed with the introduction, ‘Jim, this is Freddie.’ Then he asked me if I would accept a position on the board of directors of his new sugar beet company. I said no, thanks, and went back to bed.”

If the conservationists had looked for support from Maine’s responsible elected officials, they were disappointed. Republican Governor Reed made an unusual appearance before a joint session of the legislature several days later to ask for passage of the bill. This gesture was not wholly unexpected, since Reed is a native of Aroostook County. More surprising was the similar, if less blatant, pressure for a “flexible” approach exerted on the legislature by Democratic Senator Muskie, whose crusade for effective federal water pollution control had prompted Washington observers to nickname him Mr. Clean.

The stakes were high. Vahlsing was reaching for millions of dollars in state and federal loans. In a sense he put his life on the line: he took out a $7,000,000 life insurance policy from the Aetna Life Insurance Company to use as security for part of the loans. Aetna said it was the largest policy the company had ever written for an individual.

The state legislature acted with what some observers thought unseemly haste in passing the bill lowering the Prestile’s classification. (The vote in both houses was close, however, indicating that at least some Maine legislators may be classed among the vertebrates.) The D classification was to take effect as soon as the sugar beet refinery opened. Meanwhile, though the stream’s B classification was not being met, the attorney general’s office seemed to have lost interest in Vahlsing. The state’s inaction was explained by reporter Kenneth H. Morrison in the Bath-Brunswick Times-Record:

“Various sources close to the situation at the time said that the state did everything possible to avoid a showdown with Vahlsing because the state was so heavily committed financially by backing loans for the potato processing plant as well as $6 million in loans for the sugar refinery. The Area Redevelopment Administration (now the Economic Development Administration) had also loaned nearly $6 ½ million for the construction of the refinery.”

The rising outcry against the politicians was not motivated simply by the abstract argument that they had “legalized” pollution. The indignities were painfully concrete. Maine’s politicians had betrayed Mars Hill, whose investment in a sewage treatment plant was now undone. Moreover, they had, in effect, said that it was proper for a Maine industrialist to unload his wastes on the people of neighboring Canada.