LEWISTON – Saying it’s time that citizens let those in power know they want a cleaner river, a new activist group is forming to build community support and political clout for an improved Androscoggin, organizers say.

So far the river group has no name, and its specific agenda is not yet formed. “It’s in the embryonic stage,” said Naomi Schalit of Maine Rivers, an environmental group facilitating the new group. “There’s strong interest from Rumford to Brunswick. Our goal is to give a voice to those who know” a healthy community and development is tied to a clean river, she said.

Other groups also represent the river, but not as political activists, Schalit said.

Those getting involved say their challenge is to figure out how to get the community, both citizens and businesses, engaged.

One is Churchill Barton, 45, of Auburn, who said the river has improved dramatically, “but it seems to be stuck right now. The river seems cleaned up just enough so that no one complains about it anymore. More could be done, that’s why I’m getting involved,” said Barton, who is an environmental compliance consultant to companies.

He, his wife, their daughters and dog spend a lot of time on and near the river, duck hunting, canoeing and enjoying sandy spots on the riverbank.

The state has a good river classification system for meeting water-quality standards, but in practice, it “falls short,” Barton said. “There seems to be a distinctive approach dealing with the Androscoggin compared to other larger rivers. To me, that’s flat wrong.”

Greg Ponte is another person getting involved. He was raised in Auburn, graduated from Edward Little High School in 1972, lives in West Gardiner and is chairman of Maine Trout Unlimited. Many are satisfied about how the river has improved but wouldn’t dream of eating the fish or swimming in the Androscoggin, something citizens should be able to do, he said.

Data from the state Department of Environmental Protection show the biggest polluters are the paper mills, which legally discharge thousands of pounds of organic pollution (waste that rots) every day.

The paper mills have said they have dramatically cut back on pollution and are investing to pollute even less, but too much change too fast could make them noncompetitive and result in job losses. The mills provide more than 2,300 good-paying jobs in the region, and the industry has lost nearly 4,000 Maine jobs in the last five years.

No one wants any jobs to disappear, Ponte said, but others have a vested interest in a cleaner Androscoggin, such as the new heart doctors at Central Maine Medical Center, the people running the new Hilton in Auburn, citizens investing in improving the downtowns of Lewiston and Auburn, and those attending summer festivals.

Ponte was at a State House hearing last year when Lewiston legislators testified for a cleaner river. Few others from Lewiston-Auburn were asking for the same, he observed. Community leaders and citizens must say they want change if the river is to be improved, he said.

In his opinion, the political clout now belongs to paper mills. “When they say the word jobs,’ people run for cover,” he said.

The next river meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Lewiston Bates Mill Conference Room in the Executive Office Building.

For more information, call Barton at 754-9727; Greg D’Augustine at 784-2903; Rep. Elaine Makas, D-Lewiston at 784-5726; or Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, at 786-8283.


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