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Polluting The Prestile

March 2023
1min read

Sir: Frank Graham has written a lively account of the controversy over the Prestile Stream (“That Mess on the Prestile,” February, 1970). Unfortunately, his journalistic effort on behalf of a worthy cause—environmental improvement—is marred by several inaccuracies.

First, the Prestile did not change from a pure trout stream to a polluted watercourse in 1960, when the Vahlsing potato-processing plant was built, or in 1965, when construction began on the Vahlsing sugar-beet refinery. Fish kills and blocked fish migrations were documented by state agencies as early as 1953. The fight over the discharges from the Vahlsing potato plant should be examined against the background of sewage discharges from Easton and Mars Hill, starch-factory discharges, and the dumping of potatoes along the stream. The B classification represented a goal, not a physical fact. The sugar-beet refinery has never polluted the Prestile. Reclassification was a temporary technical step, and it did not affect and has not affected the quality of the stream.

Second, the sugar-beet refinery did not take Vahlsing off the hook with respect to his potato-processing plant discharges. The temporary change in classification to D was in effect only from January, 1967, until October, 1967, when the stream was reclassified to C. The original change in classification from B to D, incidentally, was made at the insistence of bond counsel from the underwriters of the Maine Industrial Authority, not the federal government. The haste in the change was dictated by the necessity of having the refinery in operation in time to process the fall, 1966, crop of beets in order to retain the Maine sugar-beet allotment. …

Senator Muskie reluctantly supported the reclassification on three grounds: (a) the refinery could not be financed without it; (b) the reclassification would cover only the period of start-up for the plant and, in his view, should be restored to B at the end of that time; and (c) the refinery would be designed and built with the most effective water utilization and waste treatment facilities. …

Third, the basic problem in dealing with the Prestile and similar difficulties on other Maine streams has been the antiquated Maine classification law, which requires legislative action for improvements in water quality standards and which does not provide adequate enforcement authority for the Environmental Improvement Commission. … In 1957 Governor Muskie initiated the first changes to upgrade the classification of Maine waters. …

I have cited the foregoing facts to counter the unfortunate impression … that Senator Muskie has been indifferent to pollution problems associated with industrial development in Maine and that he maintains a cozy relationship with Maine industrialists. William Caldwell, who is Mr. Graham’s only authority for the Senator’s “friendship” with Mr. Vahlsing, is not the most unbiased or accurate observer on the Maine political scene. Senator Muskie knew Mr. Vahlsing only slightly as a Maine businessman and not as a friend when Vahlsing entered the sugar-beet project, and he has dealt with Vahlsing as a constituent ever since. There has been no “friendship” to be “strained.” …

Donald E. Nicoll
Administrative Assistant to
Senator Edmund S. Muskie Washington, D.C.

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