That Mess On The Prestile

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Even Vahlsing’s most influential supporters began to change their public stance, in word if not in deed. Foremost among these was Senator Muskie, whose call for flexibility in the classification of the Prestile had played a large part in the legislature’s final vote. Speaking at the annual dinner of the Natural Resources Council, a private organization of conservationists, Muskie attempted to defend himself against the charge that he had contributed to pollution in Maine.

“If I felt for one moment,” he told the assembled conservationists, “that the sugar beet refinery meant that the Prestile is condemned to a status of an open sewer, I would not have supported the proposal to reclassify the stream. The reclassification was intended to be temporary. It was designed to meet an immediate problem in connection with the financing of the plant …”

Ironically, sugar beets were not a rousing success in Maine. The potato farmers were reluctant to set aside part of their acreage for sugar beets, which forced Vahlsing to operate his refinery at well below capacity. Early in 1969 he appealed to the Economic Development Administration in Washington to ease debt service on some $8,745,000 in federal loans to his refinery; after Vahlsing refused, then agreed, to allow a government-appointed auditor to examine his books, the government approved his request to postpone payments on the loan until the end of the year. With an improvement in both the weather and agricultural methods, Vahlsing now feels that his sugar beet crisis is behind him.

But even in its doldrums the refinery proved invaluable to Vahlsing in the operation of his potato processing plant. This, after all, remains his primary business on the Prestile, and only in the extraordinary financial circumstances by which the refinery was created could the equally extraordinary legislative action have found even specious justification. The refinery apparently has not become a source of pollution, but Vahlsing’s potato-processing plant went right on disgorging its disagreeable wastes.

July 7, 1968, was a warm day in Centreville. As he went about his chores at home, Bob Caines was mindful of the odor that reached him from the Prestile, half a mile away. He and his wife had never quite gotten used to it, although it was to be expected at that time of the year, when the temperature rose and the stream shrank. But as the morning wore on the smell increased.

“I remember there was a knock on the door,” Caines says, “and when I opened it a couple of small boys from the town were standing there with a bucket of dead fish. They wanted to sell me the lot of them for a dollar. The fish didn’t smell very good so I asked the boys where they’d caught them.

“‘We didn’t catch them,’ they told me. ‘We picked them up beside the water.’ ”

Caines got into his car and drove to the Prestile. There, along the stream’s banks, he saw hundreds of rotting trout heaped in windrows. An official New Brunswick report later described the situation: “This was perhaps the most complete fish kill which has ever occurred in the Province. Practically all fish life was eliminated in the main branch of the river from Easton, Maine, to its mouth at the Saint John River, a distance of some 25 miles.”

Caines drove back to his house, closed all the windows, and sat down to make some telephone calls. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade several New Brunswick officials to protest to their counterparts in Maine. Then he called friends in Centreville whom he knew to be as outraged as he was by this latest indignity. Finally he called a number of newspapers and television stations to make a startling announcement.

“The funny thing was, we never intended to go through with the thing,” Caines says today. “It was all a bluff on our part—and they called our bluff!”

The plan was this: Caines publicly stated an intention to build a dam across the Prestile. On the morning of July 8 Caines and his friends, two of whom provided bulldozers, would stage a show of force on the United States-Canadian border. To lend a realistic note to their demonstration, they would drive the bulldozers into the stream bed as if they intended to dam the Prestile and hurl the filth back upon the polluters in Maine. At this point, so they reasoned, the authorities would step in and demand that the demonstrators disperse. Being lawabiding citizens, they would obey the orders, leaving their point to be made by the assembled cameramen, whose pictures would illustrate how close reasonable men had been pushed to the point of anarchy.

“We showed up that morning to find crowds of people packed just inside the border,” Caines says. “A customs officer told me later they had counted over six thousand people in the area that day. There were cameramen from Canada and from across the line. There were several more bulldozers than we’d planned on—five in all —with their operators anxious to start work. There were lots of people from both sides of the border just cheering us on. The Mounties were there, too. I was waiting for them to stop us, but they just went on directing traffic. What could we do but go ahead?”