- Historic Sites
That Mess On The Prestile
From a way Down East came a stench of politics and potatoes, and news of a border incident that true patriots will long remember as
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
The traveller who leaves Maine on Route 6 and enters New Brunswick at Centreville encounters a curious monument beside the road only fifty feet inside the Canadian border. It is a large concrete slab, ten feet tall and tapering toward its flat, unadorned top. A plaque on its face bears the following inscription:
SYMBOLIZES THE BEGINNING OF THE CITIZENS’ WAR ON POLLUTION IN WESTERN NEW BRUNSWICK AND EASTERN MAINE, AND MARKS THE SITE WHERE AROUSED CITIZENS BUILT AN EARTHEN DAM TO STEM THE FLOW OF POLLUTION FROM THE VAHLSING INC. COMPLEX IN EASTON, MAINE
9 JULY 1968
THIS DATE MARKED THE BEGINNING OF
OUR WAR ON POLLUTION
THE WAR CONTINUES
An interested traveller must look closely to detect the remains of the storied dam. The ground slopes sharply down from the road through alder thickets to a puny stream, the Prestile, which, considering its notoriety, is not much to see, like those rivers in classical tales that remind tourists in modern Greece of an inconsequential creek back home. On the far side of the stream some earth has been gouged out of the bank. Limbs of a few small fallen trees interrupt the water’s surface. And this is all that remains of a dam that endured about as long as the May flies that annually appear and mate over the stream.
If the traveller continues a little farther down the road into New Brunswick, he may also encounter Robert Caines, who is chiefly responsible for both the dam and its monument. Of middle age and placid disposition, Caines is an unlikely crusader. He was once mayor of Centreville and worked as an electrician there.
But Centreville has fewer than five hundred people, and correspondingly few walls to be rewired and toasters to be repaired. Recently Caines followed the path taken by most of Centreville’s wage earners and went to work for a nearby food-processing company on the St. John River. His choice of jobs, however, was also dictated by an idealism not often found in a middle-aged man who has dabbled in politics: eager to learn more about the subject to which he was first drawn in anger, Caines operates the company’s waste treatment plant.
“We’re going to prove at this plant that industries don’t have to go on polluting the rivers,” he says.
Caines has thrown himself into his job as if while working to clean up the St. John River he is striking a blow as well at what conservationists call “that mess on the Prestile.” The mess has its origins in cities far from Centreville. It can be traced through Maine to the capital at Augusta, and beyond to Washington. It is the inevitable issue of the enduring love affair carried on in Maine between politicians and the leaders of industry; and prominent in the romance appear such names as Maine’s former governor John H. Reed and Senator Edmund S. Muskie. In its restricted flow the pretty little Prestile carries as neat a morality tale as the greatest rivers on the continent.
The stream rises near Fort Fairfield in northern Maine, flows south and east for twenty-five miles through the towns of Easton, Mars Hill, Blaine, and Bridgewater, and enters New Brunswick at Centreville. From Centreville it winds another ten miles through a pleasant valley to Florenceville, where it contributes its waters, and a great deal besides, to the St. John River.
The stream is both pretty and productive when not overburdened with pollution. In 1955 a report of the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Game described the Prestile’s cool shallow flow and the fish it supported: “Prestile Stream has been famous for its brook trout fishing for many years. … Trout of all sizes abound in most of the tributary streams, reflecting the excellent quality of the spawning, nursery and resident areas for this species.”
For many people sport or beauty is implicit in the concept of flowing water. But to others it suggests nothing more than it did to the emergent barbarians in medieval cities, who flung household wastes into the rainwater that ran through their narrow streets. Maine’s industrialists appear to share this inclination. The state’s major industries—pulp mills, potato-processing plants, tanneries, and woolen mills are gross polluters of its waterways.
Vahlsing, Incorporated, has been in the potato business for some thirty years. The company was well known in the potato fields of northern Maine’s Aroostook County when Fred H. Vahlsing opened his processing plant at Easton on the Prestile ten years ago. Though its main office is in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the company operates food-processing plants in several parts of the United States. Vahlsing himself is a plump, cigar-smoking extrovert who overwhelms friend and foe alike with hearty handshakes and grinning good humor. If his social style is vintage Ring Lardner, his political stance is unorthodox in Maine, where industrialists habitually stand with the Old Guard Republicans.
“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.
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.
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?”
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.
“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.
And so the people of Mars Hill, Centreville, and the other towns along the Prestile sit and wait for the next burst of pollution to occur downstream. The waiting is not wholly unpleasant at Centreville. There one may visit the Royal Canadian Legion bar in the evenings and sip a drink concocted by Bob Caines. “It’s a shot each of Scotch, vodka, gin, and rum, poured over crushed ice,” Caines says proudly. “We call it the Vahlsing Special two drinks and you’re polluted!”