Skip to main content

Polluting The Prestile

July 2024
1min read

Sir: Mr. Graham … has made two misstatements of fact … which create unfortunate innuendoes about my role as attorney general with respect to our efforts in the Maine courts to prevent Mr. Vahlsing from polluting the Prestile. … in May, 1968, nearly two years before Mr. Graham’s article appeared, I initiated action against Potato Service, Inc., to enjoin that company from violating the terms of its waste discharge license. As a result of that action, Potato Service, Inc., has completely redesigned its waste treatment system, eliminating virtually all of the solids from its dis- charge. In November, 1969 ( four months before Mr. Graham’s article appeared), a Maine superior court justice issued a decree establishing a timetable for complete cleanup by the company under court supervision. Potato Service, Inc., still has formidable problems with reducing the biochemical oxygen demand of its waste to the level permitted by its license, but under the terms of the decree it must plan, finance, and start construction of all necessary facilities to do so no later than October 1, 1973.

Mr. Graham … states that Maine “initiated but did not press a court action against Vahlsing.” I do not know how Mr. Graham determines whether a suit has been “pressed.”… After bringing the action, we secured a court order allowing our engineers access to the Vahlsing premises to inspect its facilities. We found that Vahlsing had redesigned his waste treatment facilities. No longer does he continually discharge mildly chlorinated potato waste into the Prestile. Instead, he has constructed a large lagoon (over ten acres in surface area) to hold the waste and pumps it from this lagoon through pipes to beet and potato fields where it is sprayed on the ground as fertilizer. We believe that our court action precipitated this maneuver. …

A part of the legal problem I have with Vahlsing, Inc., as Mr. Graham correctly points out, is that the legislature has by statute exempted that firm (as well as many other major polluters in Maine) from prosecution for violation of waterquality water classifications as long as a statutory cleanup timetable is met. The outer limit of this timetable is 1976. As a result, I was forced in the case of Vahlsing, Inc., to resort to my common-law powers as guardian of the public welfare and sue to have the firm declared a “public nuisance.” As any lawyer will tell you, there are precious few standards for determining what a “public nuisance” is. …

James S. Erwin
Attorney General
State of Maine Augusta, Maine

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.