The Androscoggin River at Dresser Rips in Auburn on Thursday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

When Lisa Pohlmann gets to talking about the history of the Androscoggin River, the news ping pongs from good to bad and back again. 

Natural Resources Council of Maine CEO Lisa Pohlmann presents “Keeping the Androscoggin River Healthy” during a ZOOM presentation Thursday evening. Screenshot from Zoom

“Remember,” said the CEO of the National Resource Council of Maine, “that there was a time in our Native American history when you could practically walk across the rivers in Maine during the spring on the backs of the fish that were migrating from the sea, upward to spawn.” 

But that was before industry began to boom along the river, polluting its waters and making habitats next to unlivable for fish and other wildlife. 

The Androscoggin River was once so polluted that it would lose all of the oxygen in its waters, according to the NRCM. Fish were unable to breathe and died by the millions. Pulp and paper mills were mostly to blame for this pollution. 

At one time, the Androscoggin was considered among the most polluted rivers in the nation. Sometimes industrial facilities discharged dyes with their wastewater that turned the water different colors. The river became so polluted that it inspired U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, who grew up near the river in Rumford, to draft the Clean Water Act in 1972.  

Today, the river has rebounded, according to Pohlmann. But there is still more work to be done. 


Pohlmann spoke at a Zoom meeting Thursday night, a presentation prepared by the NRCM along with Museum L-A, which is presently offering an exhibit about the sordid history of the river called “Our Working Waterway.” 

The exhibit ties in well with the work of the NRCM. The work of Museum L-A focuses mainly on the old mills of Lewiston-Auburn; those mills wouldn’t have been here at all if not for the mighty Androscoggin River. 

“Part of the reason why these textile mills are even located right here is because of the river,” Museum L-A curator Emma Sieh said. “So we are intrinsically tied to this very, very large waterway here in our state of Maine.” 

Pohlmann has seen the exhibit. It is, she said, “the incredible history of this river, which is really a history of American rivers in general.” 

The Zoom meeting highlighted the history of pollution in Maine’s 30,000 miles of rivers and streams and the ongoing efforts to get them cleaned up. 

Much of the discussion focused on recent efforts to secure and upgrade the river’s water classification. In 1986, Pohlmann explained, Maine’s water classification system was upgraded, with bodies of water classified as AA, A, B or C. 


The Androscoggin is still classified C, although efforts are afloat to have it upgraded to B, which would provide it with greater protections. 

Peter Rubins, chairman of the Grow L+A river working group, has been pushing for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to change the classification, saying the upgrade could significantly change the image of the Lewiston-Auburn area. 

“River classification is done by the legislature and the DEP can make suggestions,” Rubins said earlier in the week. “The DEP says the river does not meet their computer modeling for B, but our data shows that it does. The Clean Water Act of 1972 says that once a river meets a higher classification that it cannot backslide to a lower class and is basically goal-oriented. Our tact is if the DEP does not recommend our petition, we will submit it directly to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in 2021 and appeal to them to send it as a bill to the legislature for a vote in 2022.” 

Pohlmann described the NRCM’s efforts to get mills to reduce pollution as an ongoing battle. Years ago, the group took on the publishers of National Geographic, threatening to launch a public relations campaign after learning that the magazine was buying its paper from Verso Paper, which owned a mill in Jay. 

That effort was a success. 

“It is likely that this led to the magazine pressuring Verso Paper to modify his wastewater treatment,” she said, “to the point that by 2010, we were seeing the biggest decrease in pollution to the river, since the Clean Water Act.” 


According to Pohlmann, the biggest boost for Maine rivers and for the people who rely on them would come from a move to 100% renewable energy along with an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. But that proposed plan is still a long way off, she said, and there are plenty of battles to be fought in the meantime.

“We need to get going and we need to see just how quickly things will recover,” Pohlmann said. “Frankly, we’re running out of time.”

Much of what was discussed at the Thursday night presentation can be seen at the Museum L-A, which will be on display until the end of March. 

The exhibit, according to the museum’s website, “dives into the history of the Androscoggin River and its effects on the industrial development of many cities throughout Maine. From the generation of water power to the passage of the Clean Water Act, visitors will learn about how people have used this important waterway to develop manufacturing centers, polluted the river’s waters, and worked hard to clean and maintain the river throughout history.” 

To find out more, visit, which includes a fact sheet on the efforts to get the Androscoggin reclassified.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: