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Smelling One’s Way to Cleaner Water? Comparing pollution abatement in Oregon and Maine

In the most recent issue of Environmental History there is an informative article on mid-twentieth century water pollution abatement in Maine’s Androscoggin River watershed. Author Wallace Scot McFarlane completed an undergraduate thesis at Bowdoin College in 2009, from which he drew the core of his 2012 article. McFarlane “explores how people’s views of science and the environment were reshaped during the transition from localized nuisance control to concerted environmental action, from the 1940s to the 1970s,” and he does so predominately by focusing on the work of a (if not the) prominent abatement figure in the watershed from the 1940s through the 1960s, Dr. Walter A. Lawrance.[1]

McFarlane’s article provides a valuable point of reference to compare and contrast water pollution abatement efforts in Oregon with those in other states and provinces. There are at least two other works that offer a state-to-state comparison of the history of environmental legislation generally, and water quality specifically, in Oregon and Maine.[2] McFarlane’s work effectively builds upon these other sources by focusing on the efforts of a single person intimately involved in the science and administration of water quality; therefore, his article provides details that the other works on Maine do not. McFarlane’s article is also a welcome addition to journal-length studies on water pollution in Washington State, Illinois, British Columbia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Connecticut.[3]

From the second half of the nineteenth century well into the second half of the twentieth, the economies of both Maine and Oregon were heavily reliant upon the heavily-polluting pulp and paper industry, which is another reason why studies of Maine are relevant to the situation in Oregon. Maine’s Androscoggin and Oregon’s Willamette were both impacted significantly for decades from the effects of untreated pulp and paper wastes. (Historian Gregory Summers has written a study of water pollution in another watershed with long connections to the pulp and paper industry, Wisconsin’s Fox River, which I mention here in passing for reference. [4])

Comparing and contrasting events in Maine and Oregon brings to light important details that illustrate, in practical terms, the ways in which people’s values in North America relative to the environment changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these changes happened differently in different cultural and political settings. Within the realm of water pollution, one can observe that Oregonians were relatively more progressive and proactive than Mainers in that they created their state water quality agency earlier than in Maine, they did so through citizen initiative, and they granted it stronger powers. Further, water quality oversight in Oregon from 1938 through 1967 involved a board of seven that included the head of the State Health Officer, State Engineer, State Sanitary Engineer, and State Fish Commission Chair (in addition to a staff of on-the-ground engineers and technicians) who were financed from the State General Fund and tasked with abating a wide array of industrial and municipal pollutants; oversight in the Androscoggin watershed, in contrast, appears to have been centered on one man whose work was constrained to sulfite pulping wastes only and who was funded to a significant degree by the very industries that produced these wastes. As a result, the Willamette River was significantly cleaner than it had been for decades (in terms of pulp and paper wastes) by the time Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Androscoggin was not.

Below the fold I’ll provide a brief overview of Walter Lawrance’s work in the Androscoggin watershed and specify the evidence I’ve used to draw my conclusions. Read the rest of this entry »

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