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September 5, 2016 Inside the Notebook

Personal reflections on the Penobscot River Restoration Project

My interest in the just-completed 16-year Penobscot River Restoration Project — which I've written about several times during my time at Mainebiz, including the Aug. 22 story about Kleinschmidt Associates' work on the Howland Natural Fish Passage — is rooted in the broader question of how damaged ecosystems might be restored to health.

That interest dates back to my growing up years in Cleveland, a Rust Belt city encircled by the epitome of a damaged “industrial” river, the Cuyahoga — although at that time I never would have thought to make that distinction. I took it as a given that any river flowing through a city would serve industrial purposes — nothing to make a big deal about.

The Cuyahoga flows through a low-lying neighborhood known as The Flats that was defined half a century ago by smoke-belching steel mills, mountains of slag, coal and limestone and huge freighters that somehow threaded their way along the winding river to and from the mills. By the time the river emptied into Lake Erie, it was rusty brown with an oily sheen from the vast quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks that in some stretches were several inches deep.

My environmental conscience was awakened when the Cuyahoga famously caught on fire in June 1969, earning national attention and being described in Time magazine as a river that “oozes rather than flows.” How could a river catch fire, I wondered? Clearly, that shouldn't be. But I had no clue how the Cuyahoga could be restored to some semblance of a healthy river. So I ignored that question.

A few years later, in 1976, I arrived in Maine naively thinking that in doing so I could escape the pollution and urban ugliness I had come to reject along with the place where I grew up. It was a fantasy, of course.

That first winter in Maine I worked as a construction laborer in Jay in a major expansion of what was then the International Paper Co. mill. I remember feeling a vague guilt that through my labors I was an accomplice to the cabbage-like smell pervading the air and the cloudlike rafts of brown foam floating down Androscoggin River on its way to the sea. Of course, that didn't deter me from cashing my weekly paychecks at the local bank in nearby Livermore Falls or using paper without even thinking about its origins.

Thanks to environmental leaders like Maine's U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie, who grew up in another Androscoggin River mill town, Rumford, the Clean Water Act (1972) he championed ushered in new environmental policies designed to protect human health by setting strong anti-pollution goals. The Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers are just two of the many Maine rivers that began a long, slow recovery more than 40 years ago as a result of Ed Muskie's leadership. Even now, 20 years after his death in 1996, you'll find Muskie's advocacy for clean water and clean air referred to reverentially as the chief legacy of this former Maine governor, four-term senator and Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter.

But the work is far from over. That's why the newly completed $60 million Penobscot River Restoration Project is so important. It provides a model for balancing economic and environmental goals and begins to restore the understanding that those two realms don't have to be mutually exclusive.

In speaking about the completion of the Howland Dam Natural Fish Bypass with John Banks, the Penobscot Nation's director of natural resources, I was struck by his description of the river as a community. “Everything is connected out there,” he said.

That's an old wisdom, one worth coming back to.

Read more

16-year Penobscot River Restoration Project reaches the finish line

UMaine scientists use tech to see-the-unseen in potential aquaculture sites

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