That Mess On The Prestile


And so the reluctant crusaders gouged out some earth from the banks with their bulldozers and piled it in the stream. By midafternoon an earthen dam ten feet high stretched one hundred feet from bank to bank across the Prestile.

“We were afraid that the stream was going to back up on the potato field that belonged to a nice fellow named Wallace Pryor, just the other side of the line,” Caines recalls. “But he said he didn’t mind, he lived along that stream too and he didn’t like the smell any more than we did. ‘Go to it,’ he said, ’I’ve got other fields planted.’ We finished at three o’clock and then everybody went home.”

They had created the nicest international incident imaginable.

“It was a beautiful sight to see,” one of the customs officers on the United States side said recently. “The dam really worked. The water backed up as far as you could see, rising along the banks.”

“Was the smell as offensive as the people in Centreville described it?” he was asked.

“Sure was,” he nodded.

There was a flurry of excitement in Fredericton (capital of New Brunswick province) and in Ottawa, Augusta, and Washington. New Brunswick authorities, unsettled by the militancy of their compatriots, made a show of concern.

“Do you realize you are violating at least four provincial and federal laws?” a member of the Water Improvement Authority asked Caines.

“When citizens have to do something like this to get the attention of you people,” Caines retorted, “you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Apparently they were. When Caines asked a Mountie why he and his colleagues had not interfered, the Mountie grinned.

“We had orders from Fredericton,” he told Caines. “We weren’t to interfere unless there was violence.”

Caines and his friends removed the dam the next day.

“We had made our point,” Caines said. “Now we were just anxious to pull down the dam and let the backed-up flow come down and give the stream a good flushing.”

Embarrassed officials on both sides of the border breathed a collective sigh of relief. If Augusta and Washington were in fact abetting Vahlsing, winking at his plant’s effluent while loaning him money, they could not very well make a show of indignation when citizens of a neighboring country took the law into their own hands. Canadian officials, though secretly delighted, were impotent. Freddie Vahlsing, the center of the storm, pleaded that he was the victim of an act of God: “extremely low water levels.”

But the debate on the blighted stream would never be the same again. The Prestile has taken its place with Santa Barbara, California (oil), Donora, Pennsylvania (deadly air), and Clear Lake, California (pesticides), in that nightmare landscape of pollution that some modern Dante inevitably will make the subject of a new Inferno . The callousness with which Maine’s politicians abandoned the stream has created some pessimism about the fate that threatens the state’s other natural resources.

The state eagerly seeks the building of a huge oil refinery and an attendant free port, to which giant tankers would deliver their oil, at Machiasport, along a lovely section of the coast. Yet, until local conservationists pressed the issue, state officials had made no provision in the proposed lease for pollution controls.

Maine’s political leaders, including Governor Curds and Senator Muskie, have waged a vigorous campaign to build a massive dam on the upper St. John River—the so-called Dickey-Lincoln Project. They have persisted in this campaign despite the opposition of conservationists, who point out that thousands of acres of timberland, wilderness, and deer yards will be flooded out.

The state usually moves swiftly against a new school or hospital that threatens to pollute a stream with sewage; but it takes no effective action against powerful industrialists such as the paper manufacturers and potato processors who have turned Maine’s finest rivers into open sewers. At Caribou the Aroostook River is so fouled by potato wastes that the town’s thirteen thousand people must turn to other sources for their drinking water. The more affluent citizens buy bottled water at thirty cents a gallon, while the others haul their drinking water from wells, many of dubious quality, in the nearby countryside. Though the state has threatened court action, a company called Potato Service, Inc., still contributes the bulk of the pollution.

Maine’s waterways remain badly polluted because its politicians have not reconciled “jobs and pickerel.” In their eagerness for new industry they have sacrificed the pickerel, trout, salmon, clams, and other life in the abandoned rivers, thereby destroying irreplaceable natural resources and reducing the quality of life in Maine for everyone who lives there. Inevitably, this shortsighted policy backfires.