RUMFORD, Maine — Pete Didisheim, interim CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, met us next to the mighty Kennebec River in Augusta on a warm September morning. October 18 will mark 50 years since the Clean Water Act became law at a time when America’s waterways faced a crisis.
"50 years ago, no one would have come to this spot," Didisheim said, pointing to the river. "In the middle of the summer, it would have smelled. They would have seen raw sewage. It was so polluted, there was almost no fish that could survive in this river."
Perhaps the most consequential environmental law passed in the United States was born in Maine, through Sen. Ed Muskie.
Muskie drew inspiration from his hometown. As he grew up in Rumford, the town's unchecked paper mill and other mills and factories along the Androscoggin River dumped raw sewage into the river, which runs into the Atlantic Ocean. Challenging his home’s largest employer, Muskie authored the bill to arm Washington and local governments to stop the dumping of pollutants.
George O’Keefe is Rumford’s economic development director. When asked about Muskie's defiance toward the Rumford mill's practices, O'Keefe said it wasn't a matter of choosing sides.
"At the levels of pollution that we had prior to the Clean Water Act, the mill itself was going to become unsustainable because the community was unlivable," he explained. "So, it wasn’t really about choosing one or the other."
Fifty years later, the mill has changed hands multiple times, but it still operates ‘round the clock. The Androscoggin still winds alongside it -- cleaner now -- and attracts tourists to not only pass through well-trodden Route 2 but stay longer and more often.
"The first 25 years, I think, there was a lot of treatment plants that got built; there was a lot of pollution controls that got put in place; there was a lot of work done," he said. "But, I think that the second 25 years we’ve seen of the Clean Water Act to date has allowed us to, actually, cash in."
Muskie died in 1996 and wasn’t able to see the last 25 years of progress. But Didisheim thinks he’d be proud.
"The re-birth of this river is remarkable," he lauded about the Kennebec. "It’s remarkable for the economy of Augusta; for the quality of life of the people who live in this city."
"And, what’s happening here is happening in lots of other parts of the state of Maine," he added.