Scott White remembers what the Androscoggin River once was.

He remembers the thick, light brown foam that floated by his childhood home perched on the riverbank in Livermore Falls.

He remembers summer days spent casting lines on a river all but bereft of fish, catching nothing more than river chubs on a good day.

He remembers the raw sewage that flowed directly into the water.

Now, looking back to the Androscoggin River of his childhood in the early 1970s, White said it’s truly been amazing to see its transformation.

The Chisholm Mill of the International Paper Co. at Livermore Falls on the Androscoggin River in June 1973. Foam is visible on the river below the dam. U.S. National Archives photo

Fifty years after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the river that inspired U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Rumford to write his landmark bill is the cleanest it’s been in more than a century.


Game fish have become common throughout the river. Recreational amenities, including Riverland State Park in Turner, have sprung up along its banks. Cities have centered their economic revitalization plans around the newfound draw of the riverfront.

And while some people have even ventured to swim in the river, “that’s still something I wouldn’t do today!” White said.

But perhaps the biggest change from the 1970s to the present is the perception of the river.

“You always had a sense that you got this major water body and it’s looks pretty spectacular, but it wasn’t really something to interact with,” said Jonathan LaBonte, former mayor of Auburn and former executive director of the Androscoggin River Land Trust.

Once viewed primarily as a means to power mills and wash away waste, the Androscoggin River has become a resource for common people to recreate and enjoy. None of this happened overnight. It was the work of countless activists, agencies and officials who recognized the social and economic values of a cleaner, healthier river.

But still, challenges remain.



As paper mills began to spring up along the banks of the Androscoggin River in the late 1800s, communities grew and the health of the river declined.

Up until the mid-1900s, it was thought that waste dumped into the river would be swept away and diluted to a degree that wouldn’t significantly impact the quality of life for residents along its banks.

But that wasn’t the case.

In the summer of 1941, the smell of the river became so terrible that people demanded the government take action. It sued the paper mills in 1942 and won, placing the first restrictions on discharges to the river.

Bark peelings are piled at the Oxford Paper Co. mill in Rumford in 1973. U.S. National Archives photo

That same year, the three major paper mill companies along the river, based in Berlin, New Hampshire, Rumford and Livermore Falls, formed a committee to study the river, mitigate nuisance conditions, and meet state-imposed restrictions.


Bates College chemistry professor Walter Lawrance was hired by the committee as a consultant in 1943 and, after the noxious odor returned in 1947, was appointed rivermaster by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Lawrance was tasked with remediating the river and granted legal authority to limit pollution discharge from the mills.

The mills first created storage lagoons to impound some of their waste during the hot, low-flow summer months, releasing it incrementally as the water flow increased in the fall. But this strategy produced little change in the state of the river.

As the paper mills dragged their feet making significant changes, Lawrance looked to his knowledge of chemistry for a temporary solution to combat the river stench.

Bates College chemistry professor Walter Lawrance stands at the Gulf Island Dam in Lewiston in 1973. Lawrance was the state-appointed rivermaster of the Androscoggin River from 1947 to 1977. U.S. National Archives photo

Under his direction, from 1948 to 1960, more than 6,600 tons of sodium nitrate — roughly equivalent to 470 dump truck loads — were dumped into the Androscoggin River, primarily between the Gulf Island Dam in Lewiston and Turner Center Bridge.

Lawrance theorized that the chemical would prevent the river from creating its noxious smell. However, critics accused the chemist of perfuming the river rather than addressing the core of the pollution problem.

As Lawrance also raised the limits on discharges into the river, mill executives in the early to mid-1960s were eventually pushed to invest millions of dollars to make their pulping process more efficient and produce less waste.


The Androscoggin paper mill in Jay, which owner Pixelle Specialty Solutions of Pennsylvania announced this week would close early next year, was built in 1965 to replace the pulping operations at the now-defunct Otis Mill on the Jay-Livermore Falls line as part of this effort.

While switching from a sulfite to a Kraft pulping process resulted in some improvement to the river, sewage and industrial waste continued to flow freely into the river. It wasn’t until after the Clean Water Act was passed that the river truly began to recover.

The Clean Water Act called on states to create water quality standards for all navigable waters, regulated point-source pollution and unlocked millions in government funds to assist with the construction of waste treatment facilities. These facilities treated sewage and industrial waste before discharging the remains into the river.

By the late 1970s, fish could survive in much of the Androscoggin River year-round for the first time in decades.


Passing the Clean Water Act was only the start of cleaning up the Androscoggin River. In the decades since, many individuals and entities have continued to push for even greater improvements on the state and federal level.


Rep. John Nutting, D-Leeds, speaks at the early bird breakfast meeting of the Greater Rumford Chamber of Commerce on April 12, 1990, explaining the river foam, odor and color bill, which he authored. Barbara Adams photo, Sun Journal

In 1988, John Nutting of Leeds, then a young Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives, introduced the color, odor and foam bill at the request of a state working group. The bill, which called on the paper mills to improve the clarity and smell of the river by filtering out tree resin from its discharge, was passed by the Legislature in 1988 and 1989, but vetoed by then-Gov. John McKernan twice.

The Legislature again approved the bill in 1990, but only by a slim margin. A short, surprise appearance by Muskie himself the day of the Senate vote may have made all the difference, Nutting said.

“Muskie, in blistering tone, said to the people, the senators, he says, ‘These are the people’s rivers, not industries’ and the municipalities’ rivers. You need to vote for that young man’s bill,’ and he motioned to me,” Nutting recalled.

The Senate passed the bill 18-17, Nutting said. When it made it to the the governor’s desk for the third time, he finally signed it.

Although both the state Chamber of Commerce and the paper industry lobbied against the bill, the Lewiston-Auburn Chamber of Commerce stood by Nutting, recognizing the economic value of a cleaner river to the Twin Cities, he recalled.

Two of Nutting’s other bills, one to ban the discharge of cancer-causing dioxins from mills and a second that made the color, odor and foam bill even stricter, passed in 1996 and 2004, respectively, cleaning the river further.


While building support for the dioxin ban, Nutting and then-Gov. Angus King jumped into the Kennebec River from the Hallowell boat launch to the shock of the news media and attendees to the event.

“All I said was ‘The governor and I are now going to demonstrate future uses of the rivers,'” Nutting said. “We jumped in and swam, I don’t know, 50, 60 feet, and the place just erupted in applause.”

In a 16-year period, Nutting saw a stark difference in the public’s attitude toward cleaning the river.

Debates on the three bills changed from “very contentious (in 1988-90), to which way should we clean (the river) up in ’96, to ’04 it was like no debate at all,” Nutting said. “One of the biggest problems we have now is people are complaining because they want more access points.”

Since water treatment facilities were built in the 1970s, the state has continued to invest in local infrastructure to reduce sewage overflows and contaminated storm water runoff from reaching Maine’s waters, according to Brian Kavanaugh, Maine Department of Environmental Protection director of the Bureau of Water Quality.

Water pours from a sewer cover July 28 near Festival Plaza in Auburn during a heavy rain. Vanessa Paolella/Sun Journal file photo

“All of these tremendous improvements have come about in very large part because of the investments we’ve made into our public infrastructure,” Kavanaugh said. “It’s really important that we hang onto the gains that we’ve made (and) that we continue to invest in that infrastructure.”


The volume of combined storm water and sewer overflows has decreased by 94% since 1989, Kavanaugh said. However it remains a problem today.

In 2021, 346 million gallons of combined storm water and sewer overflows was discharged to Maine waters. This generally occurs when heavy rain events overload municipal water systems.

Today, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people eat no more than six to 12 meals of fish a year caught from the Androscoggin River due to persistent contaminants such as PCBs, dioxins and DDT.

The Clean Water Act and succeeding legislation primarily targeted “obvious” pollutants,” Kavanaugh said. Now the DEP is focusing on the next phase of improving Maine’s waters, including limiting less obvious pollutants such as excess nutrients and emerging contaminates, including PFAS.


Once, being near the river was the last place people wanted to be.


“Nobody would build or want to be near the river,” said Peter Rubins, chairman of the Grow L-A River Working Group. “The buildings that are architecturally influential are all over this city, and it’s beautiful architecture, but nobody wanted to be here.”

“It’s hard to believe that the Industrial Revolution pinpointed this river as an open sewer,” he added.

Now, riverfront property has become desirable for housing and business development, and the Androscoggin River is at the core of Lewiston and Auburn’s downtown revitalization strategies. Officials on both sides of the rivers are working to expand social and recreation opportunities along the river.

Canoes pass each other in June on the Androscoggin River during RiverFest 2022 in Lewiston-Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

“That’s the greatest sign of accomplishment, I think, is that people are embracing the rivers and that it’s part of their economic development and a great social aspect of those communities along the river,” Kavanaugh said. 

However, LaBonte said one of the greatest challenges he faced as the former mayor of Auburn and executive director of the Androscoggin River Land Trust is that many locals still don’t have personal connections with the river.

“It’s the legacy of pollution, that (people) really didn’t build a culture of using the river,” said LaBonte, an Auburn native. “You have longtime residents still that would say that they’ll never touch the river, that it’s still polluted.


As Lewiston, Auburn and many other communities along the river begin negotiating new license agreements with hydroelectric dam owners on the river — something that happens only every 30 to 50 years — LaBonte said there is a “culture of low expectations” from the river.

“Does this community believe they can expect great things from the river and that there’s an obligation that they should be leveraging for others to invest in that vision?” he asked.

Relicensing negotiations provide an uncommon opportunity for community officials to request recreation provisions and investments from the large hydroelectric companies profiting from the river.

But this year, as activists, officials and the public continue to push for cleaner, more accessible rivers, they also have a reason to celebrate.

Balloons drift over the Androscoggin River in August during the Great Falls Balloon Festival in Lewiston earlier this year. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

Earlier this year, the Maine Legislature unanimously endorsed a bill that upgraded the water quality classification of the last 14-mile stretch of the Androscoggin River, between the Worumbo Dam in Lisbon to Merrymeeting Bay, from the rock-bottom C classification, up to B. It was a long-sought decision for the river, which was once considered one of the most polluted in the country.

And 50 years after the passage of Clean Water Act, most everyone agrees on at least one thing.

The smelly, polluted Androscoggin River of Ed Muskie’s childhood is not the Androscoggin River of today.

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