That Mess On The Prestile

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“Two major industries, bringing hundreds of job opportunities, were interested in settling in Maine earlier this year,” says Donaldson Koons, chairman of the Water and Air Environmental Improvement Commission (which has since replaced the W.I.C.). “These were nonpolluting food processors who needed clean water to operate their plants. They decided eventually not to settle here because it was impossible to find Class B water near any population centers.

“This is the most important limiting factor in the development of Maine today. The state is just beginning to realize there are some industries it cannot afford to have here .”

Koons’s commission is severely restricted by law in what action it is able to take against polluters. Often nothing seems to happen for an inordinately long time after cases are turned over to the attorney general’s office. In the glare of publicity generated by Bob Caines and his friends at Centreville in 1968 Maine initiated, but did not press, a court action against Vahlsing. Yet as late as December, 1968, the state made a new commitment of funds to guarantee its $6,000,000 loans to Vahlsing’s Prestile venture. Koons privately protested a recent friendly visit by Governor Curtis to the plant on the occasion of its latest expansion; like many other people, he felt that Curtis showed poor taste in lending the prestige of his office to a venture that is still technically under suit by Maine for its violations of antipollution standards.

In the absence of any discernible antipollution xeal in the halls of state, public opposition is expressed chiefly through conservation organizations such as the Maine Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Council. The most militant of these groups is the fledgling State Biologists Association.

“We have one hundred fifty members,” says Dr. Robert M. Chute, who is a general biology teacher at Bates College and a former president of the S. B. A. “Some of the members think we’re too militant and that we should spend more time promoting research. But how can you lock yourself in the ivory tower when things like this Prestile situation exist?”

Under Chute’s leadership the S.B.A. carried the fight to Vahlsing himself. In an announcement that received national attention the S.B.A. asked concerned citizens to boycott Vahlsing products. People from all over the country wrote to the S.B.A., promising support for the boycott. A woman in Asbury Park, New Jersey, told Chute that she withdrew her money from a local bank when she learned Vahlsing was a director.

 

The boycott has naturally encountered certain obstacles. There is always the threat of a suit by Vahlsing against the S.B.A., but Chute says he would relish the opportunity to put Vahlsing on the stand in court; several young lawyers in Maine have already offered the S.B.A. their services should the boycott lead to a legal reprisal.

Vahlsing still holds considerable support, both locally and in Augusta, because of his contributions to Maine’s economy. According to a flier he distributed recently among state legislators his firms employ 1,200 people in Maine, with an annual payroll of $5,000,000. He buys beets and potatoes from local farmers for another $5,000,000. He pays $120,000 in taxes to Easton, $600,000 in freight fees to the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, and $900,000 to local fuel distributors. Such figures impress many people, especially when they are not balanced by the immense intangible costs of pollution.

What does the traveller along the banks of the Prestile find today besides the remnants of Bob Caines’s dam? Vahlsing contends that he is doing his best to treat the wastes from his plant. Last spring, during a period of high flow, Vahlsing paid a Centreville man fifty dollars to catch ten trout in the stream, and then had the fisherman and his trout flown to New York City to prove at his board of directors’ meeting there that conditions were not as dismal as they had been painted along the Prestile. Conservationists point out that new trout populations find their way into the Prestile from its tributaries when high flows dilute the pollution. They also remain skeptical about Vahlsing’s ability to stop pollution on so small a stream.

Senator Muskie remains acutely embarrassed by this blot on his conservation record. It has strained, though not broken, his friendship with Vahlsing. Publicly, the senator maintains that Vahlsing kept his promise not to pollute the Prestile with sugar beet wastes.

Maine’s suit, though moribund, technically still hangs over Vahlsing’s unbowed head. The suit, filed in 1968, seeks to prohibit the discharge of wastes from his processing plant into its treatment lagoons until stronger dikes are built, and from discharging from the lagoons into the Prestile unless stream flow is adequate to provide proper dilution. Meanwhile, the state legislature has stirred itself to raise the classification of the Prestile to C, a standard Vahlsing does not have to meet until 1976. The state also pays what one politician calls hush money to Mars Hill to indemnify it for the funds invested by the town in its sewage treatment plant.