“Can we afford clean water? Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make possible life on this planet? Can we afford life itself? Those questions were never asked as we destroyed the waters of our nation, and they deserve no answers as we finally move to restore and renew them. These questions answer themselves.”

– Sen. Ed Muskie

Well, it seems Sen. Muskie was incorrect. Questions about clean water never answer themselves. All they do, as evidenced by the treatment of Muskie’s precious Androscoggin, is beget more questions.

Last week, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection preliminarily endorsed a plan to bring the Androscoggin into compliance with Muskie’s legacy, the 1972 Clean Water Act. The panel meets again Feb. 7, for another vote.

The plan’s major point is simple: inject more oxygen into Gulf Island Pond, the polluted impoundment which disqualifies the river from Act compliance. Some discharges are also tightened, but are secondary to the oxygenation.

Which is like spraying perfume on a landfill. Instead of directly addressing the true sources of the Androscoggin’s woes, point and nonpoint alike, this proposal values bare compliance over cleanliness.

Maybe this solution is meant to keep everybody happy, and out of court.

Yet paper mills are displeased. They feel wronged again by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, whose eleventh-hour analysis outside of the board’s oversight, and after the record closed, inflamed old concerns about the fairness in its reviews.

Some environmentalists are also displeased. The Clean Water Act, in 2008, will see its eighth president. It has done amazing work in its 35 years, except in the waterway that wends through Muskie’s hometown of Rumford.

If approved, the proposal would be bad for the mills, because it would drag them again before regulators once their permits expire in 2010. It’s bad for the river, because it does nothing to clean its waters for the long term.

We wish the BEP would reconsider. Levying a multi-million dollar oxygenation project onto Verso, NewPage and Florida Power & Light is an unneeded burden on industry, for minimal gains.

Those saying they represent the river’s best interests also remain divided. The Natural Resources Council of Maine decried the board decision. The Conservation Law Foundation and Androscoggin River Alliance liked it.

Yet just like wind power, divisions within the environmental community only seem to pollute a citizen board’s decision-making. How many contradictory voices can speak for the same river?

We submit only one should speak: Muskie. “The cancer of water pollution was engendered by our abuse of our lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans; it has thrived on our half-hearted attempts to control it; and like any other disease, it can kill us,” he said, in urging Clean Water Act passage in 1972.

This isn’t a plea for just compliance. This is a demand for a clean river, not only by federal standards, but also by natural ones. This is what Muskie wanted.

The plan before the BEP is not.

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