CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
There is no doubt that the Penobscot is in better condition today than it has been in a long time. This is due, in large part, to the efforts of those who live, work and play along its banks. While there is much to celebrate, it’s also important not to lose sight of continuing changes in the economy and ecosystem that represent both challenges and opportunities to ensuring continued improvement for generations to come. Members of the PRCC are constantly monitoring these topics and we need your help to make sure that, if needed, our collective voice can participate in any discussion, action or decisions that might impact the future.
Balancing Industry & Development
Despite the deep heritage and tradition of industry along the river, global competition and rising energy costs have increasingly challenged this way of life. In 2014 the 84-year-old paper mill in Bucksport became the latest mill on the Penobscot River to close its doors. The role of Maine’s rivers in our economy has shifted from serving as a resource for industry to supporting recreation and tourism. This change has incidentally played a role in the improvement of water quality.
In an age-old struggle between development and the environment, we must work to find a realistic and sustainable balance for our community that recognizes both the importance of our past and the need for jobs and economy far into the future.
Remaining industry along the banks of the Penobscot still maintain outfalls (a place where a river, drain, or sewer empties into the sea, a river, or a lake) licensed by the state and the EPA.
Meanwhile, a $3 million dredging project and a $6.4 million upgrade to the port of Searsport are on the Maine Department of Transportation work plan for 2018 and 2019. Following a strong outcry from locals concerned about the serious impact of a full dredge, the plan now involves only digging out the existing shipping channel and ship turning area instead of the original proposal that would have expanded the shipping channel and shipping berths at Mack Point in Searsport.
It’s likely only a matter of time until a proposal to expand the dredge area returns. The Maine Department of Transportation maintains that the port needs to be upgraded to safely accommodate the turning radius of the larger ships and the growing economy of the port.
Adapting to an Evolving Ecosystem
Once abundant in our rivers, Gulf of Maine Wild Atlantic Salmon are currently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Listing a species triggers controls like a ban on fishing, a long-term plan to restore population levels and others tools that have proven successful with species like the American bald eagle. Progress is made slowly and returns ebb and flow. In a recent interview, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service shared that nearly 850 had returned this year. This is an improvement from past years, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Meanwhile, several pieces of legislation in Congress may soon be considered that would weaken the Endangered Species Act.
Additionally, we must be on constant guard against new colonizing organisms that could change our bay fisheries. Over the last two centuries, the ecosystem in Penobscot Bay was disrupted by several invasions of nonindigenous species including the common periwinkle and Baltic green crab. These caused serious damage to Maine's coastal saltmarshes and softshell clams.
Celebrating 45 Years of Progress
Once upon a time, Maine’s Penobscot River, along with the Kennebec and Androscoggin, was listed by the environmental movement of the 1960s as among the ten most polluted rivers in the country. This began to change after the passage of the Clean Water Act.
Congress had to override President Nixon’s veto and the law was adopted on October 18, 1972, preventing any future discharge into navigable waters from a point source without a permit.
It wasn’t an easy or smooth transition. Up until this point, there were no laws regulating the discharge activities of industry along the river and practices were commonplace. Now, in order to earn a permit, the best available pollution-control technology had to be installed. At the same time, the government launched a multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade sewage treatment plants.
Acknowledging the uphill climb, Muskie said, “You’ve got to spend money. You’ve got to impose standards, and you’ve got to enforce them. There’s no easy way to do it.”
Fast forward 45 years. Our rivers are renewed. Our children and their children will have memories of something other than the sight of sewage floating in the Penobscot. Our challenge lies in continuing to monitor water quality regulations and associated funding to ensure that this important progress continues and no drastic changes are made to policy that would severely impact clean water protections.
Increasing Education & Outreach
Across the area, communities and organizations are working to preserve and celebrate the rich history of the Penobscot River. The Penobscot River is one of the reasons that communities along the banks were first settled. Explorers, colonists and large ships preparing to deliver Maine timber around the world, all traveled up and down the river where recreational enthusiasts fish, boat, canoe and kayak today.
It is critically important that new generations understand the complete history of the Penobscot. Many members of our communities are too young to recall the past. The challenge moving forward is for all to play an active role in preserving the story. Share your memories with your Grandchildren. Bring the family on scenic walking tour or a kayak trip along the river. Volunteer for the Penobscot Riverkeepers, the Penobscot Marine Museum or one of the many other historical societies celebrating the past, present and future of our mighty Penobscot.