The 1970s: Aroostook River basin planning in full swing

Steve Sutter, Special to The County
10 years ago

    In its 1968-69 annual report, Maine’s Environmental Improvement Commission (EIC) noted wastewater applications from McKay Rock Products (now Lane Construction) in Presque Isle to discharge stone dust to the Aroostook River in the amount of 450 gallons per minute (gpm), and from Taterstate Frozen Foods in Washburn to unload 750 gpm of potato processing waste into Salmon Brook.

    “Commission staff was ordered to contact the Attorney General’s Office in an effort to continue pressure in the courts for action against Potato Services of Presque Isle and Vahlsing Incorporated of Easton for illegal dumping of potato processing wastes.” This led to the case James S. Irwin, Attorney General v. Potato Service, Inc., Aroostook Superior Court, Civil Action, Docket No. 9505.

    On July 2, 1970, the Federal Register published regulations requiring municipalities seeking federal grants for waste treatment works to assure they would require pre-treatment by any industrial dischargers. While the ruling was vaguely worded and not interpreted by guidelines until months later, it signaled a new intention on the part of EPA to pare the huge subsidies going to industry.

    In 1971, the 105th Legislature added a provision to state water quality laws requiring that wastewater discharges receive the “best practicable treatment” before a license would be issued.

    In the EIC’s last annual report, the Commission (replaced by Maine DEP July 1, 1972) noted “special assistance rendered” to the Northern Maine Regional Planning Commission (NMRPC) through a $40,000 interest-free loan to complete its regional study of the Aroostook River. “The study had been stopped when Vahlsing, Inc. failed to contribute matching funds to the project.”

    On March 16, 1972, the 22-member NMRPC Executive Board approved “The Northern Maine Regional Treatment System.” The Edward C. Jordan Co. was retained to further refine the firm’s recommended regional pollution control plan in the combined Aroostook River and Prestile Stream basins. The idea of treating two basins as one hydrologic unit was conceived in a preliminary NMRPC evaluation of the area’s pollution problems initiated in 1967.

    The consultant’s recommendation, unveiled publicly on April 26, 1972 in “A Plan for Clean Water,” was a mammoth publicly-owned joint and interconnected municipal and industrial treatment system for Easton, Presque Isle and Caribou. “The treatment transport system, as originally envisioned, would treat [aerate] the waste flows while in transit from Presque Isle to Caribou.” The 24-page report also noted a state law would be needed to transfer fresh process water and wastewater between the two stream basins.

    The federal Clean Water Act, effective Oct. 18, 1972, touched on every phase of water quality control, from watershed studies to construction grants, and from licensing and enforcement to citizen participation. Significantly, the law made it crystal clear that private industry could no longer tap the federal treasury to fund their waste treatment expenses; they would have to pay their full share of construction and operating costs in any joint municipal-industrial treatment system.

    On May 15, 1973, a public hearing was held in Augusta on LD 1748, a Private and Special bill to create a “regional sanitary district for Central Aroostook County.” Sponsored by Rep. Hayes E. Gahagan of Caribou, the bill also sought to authorize “the bilateral transfer of water (up to 10 cubic feet per second) between the Aroostook River Watershed and the Prestile Stream Watershed.” This emergency bill was signed into law on June 8, 1973.

    On Aug. 13, 1973, the Charter meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Aroostook-Prestile Treatment District was held in the NMRPC offices in Presque Isle. The meeting was organized by Jeffrey L. Gammon, coordinator, River Basin Planning Division, NMRPC.

    On Aug. 15, 1973, in a letter to James Barresi, executive director, NMRPC, from Charles Corkin II, Attorney, Enforcement Branch, EPA, it was noted “in the absence of contractual rights, the Agency has no authority under existing law to mandate participation by an industrial discharger in a regional or municipal facility, even though an EPA approved basin plan provides for that result.”

    Also on Aug. 15, 1973, The Star-Herald published an article entitled “Potato Service Shifting for Itself on Sewage Treatment System Plans.” The potato processing plant had decided it would cost far less to construct its own waste treatment facility than it would by going in on the proposed regional system.

    Concluding the informative news piece, the editor wrote “No matter how desirable a regional treatment facility might be, however, the fact remains that if Potato Service can build a treatment plant that meets government discharge control requirements, the regional system may prove to be stillborn.” In due course it was.

   Steve Sutter is a retired agricultural and resource economist living on a Presque Isle riverfront property that has been in his family since April 12, 1854. This is the eighth installment of his series on the history of the Aroostook River.