Today, the Westfield River is full of trout. It provides recreation opportunities to tens of thousands of kayakers and canoers every year. The Westfield River, which starts in the Berkshire Hills and ends near Agawam, Massachusetts, is a scenic wonder protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
But in the 1950s, it was red.
In 1952, the Connecticut River Watershed Council began to be concerned about the quality of the Westfield River, which fed into the Connecticut. Factories, mills, and tanneries upriver dyed the color of the water, and fish populations had been decimated. The next year, the council helped form the Westfield River Watershed Association. The WRWA identified pollution control as a key problem in the river valley.
In The Westfield River Watershed Association: A Brief Summary of Its Organization and Activities from 1953 thru 1974, former WRWA executive director Richard Waite writes: “Reverend Schultz noted these significant trends: the numbers of people interested in the country’s natural resources; because of exploitation, the need for counter action; activities in the Brandywine and Muskingdon watersheds; the relationship between the Connecticut River Watershed Council and WRWA; water resources – the retention of flood waters, maintenance of constant flows, the need to eliminate pollution.”
The organization was formed a critical time. On August 7, 1955, Hurricane Diane formed off the coast of South Carolina. The storm slammed into North Carolina and made its way quickly up the coast and into Connecticut and western Massachusetts. Diane dumped rain into the Connecticut River Valley, doubling the height of the river and damaging buildings, dams, and farms.
The Westfield River had spilled into people’s homes and businesses and brought with it the pollution it carried. Towns along the river agreed to provide funding to the WRWA in the hopes that it could pressure the Massachusetts government to create flood controls along the river.
“Reverend Schultz noted these significant trends: the numbers of people interested in the country’s natural resources; because of exploitation, the need for counter action… the retention of flood waters, maintenance of constant flows, the need to eliminate pollution”
A couple hundred miles to the northeast, another river was earning a reputation as the worst in the world.
The Androscoggin River feels like it was built specifically for mills. It drops at a rapid rate of about eight feet per mile and is wide, able to support massive dams and generate huge amounts of hydropower. Enormous mills at Berlin, New Hampshire; Jay, Maine; and Rumford, Maine, made towns along the river prosperous.
But downriver, things weren’t so great. By the time the Androscoggin arrived at Lewiston, a city of 40,000, it had a sour smell. In Smelly History of the Androscoggin River, Scot McFarlane writes, “In 1941 the odor coming from the Androscoggin in the Lewiston-Auburn area was so bad that children sold clothespins on either sides of the bridge and people threw up as they crossed the river.”
The Water Pollution Control Act, passed in 1948, was supposed to fix that. And it did – in some places. But the act was weak, and while it may have improved water quality upriver, it did little to address downriver quality. That’s because the act limited how much pollution could be dumped into rivers by any single operation, but on rivers like the Androscoggin there were hundreds of mills and factories.
In particular, a growing demand for paper in the first half of the twentieth century was devastating to the river. Paper mills took advantage of the cheap energy the powerful river provided but poured toxic chemicals back into the water. They also pushed chemicals into the air, which gave a distinctive pungent odor to the entire town.
Pollution was so rampant that by 1960 there was no significant oxygen left in the river. Not a single fish could be found. “Houses painted white turned black and blistered in great ugly patches, and by the time you had reached the city limits, you had to put up your car windows despite the heat and try not to breathe through your nose,” Page Helm Jones wrote in 1975’s Evolution of a Valley: The Androscoggin Story. “It was revolting, and the exodus of families who could afford it became a locust-like invasion of the seashore and the mountain and lakeside camps—provided they were located far from the foul river. The wage earners must of necessity remain, and their outcries reached such a volume that the matter was brought before the newly created Maine Sanitary Water Board”
The Maine Sanitary Water Board, created in 1941, had little real power. The board hired a consulting firm out of Boston which recommended that cities and towns along the river create sewage treatment plants and the state set aside some money to help build them. But when the problem worsened with the construction of new mills in Jay, the state decided to give the board teeth, creating the Department of Environmental Protection on July 1, 1972, now with the authority to establish pollution control rules and to take action against polluters.
One of Maine’s senators, Edmund Muskie, recognized that, because the Androscoggin River crossed a state line, there was only so much Maine could do. After all, paper mills in Gorham and Berlin, New Hampshire, also dumped pollutants into the waterway, and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection couldn’t do anything about that.
“Houses painted white turned black and blistered in great ugly patches, and by the time you had reached the city limits, you had to put up your car windows despite the heat and try not to breathe through your nose.”
Muskie marshaled Congress to pass landmark legislation, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 – better known as the Clean Water Act – to regulate navigable waters like the Androscoggin River. The act required any company that sought to dump chemicals into a river to obtain a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency and to treat those chemicals to reduce or eliminate their harmful effects on the environment.
The Clean Water Act had a major effect on the rivers of New England. Not only the Androscoggin but other mill rivers, like the Merrimack, Connecticut, and Charles, were cleaned up. Restoration still awaits rivers like Massachusetts’ Blackstone, but the act was key in reducing pollution and other contaminants.
But water wasn’t the only problem.
Air pollution, especially in the industrious sections of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, threatened New England. The region was one of the most adamant about air quality standards, supporting the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act and empowering the federal government to set restrictions on auto emissions. In the 1990s, the Clean Air Act was strengthened to expand limits on toxic air pollution.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that five of the six New England states adopted the California Standards, a series of strict car emissions standards. The California Standards were proposed by California because auto emission pollution is severe in the Los Angeles area. New York adopted the standards for similar reasons, and the New England states, mindful of the pollution that caused them to plug their noses on the Lewiston-Auburn bridge in the 1940s, followed suit.
That meant that those strict standards – which are applied to new cars and to used cars seeking re-inspection – were in use for 1 in every 3 U.S. cars by 2017. By lending their support to the California Standards, New England was really pushing to have the whole country follow those rules.
New Englanders who lived through the pollution of the twentieth century know the damage it does to our health and to our environment. For so much of the region, the reason to live, work, and visit here is the environment. Weakening our pollution controls is a threat to our health, our economy, and our planet.
This article owes a great deal to DOCUMERICA, a project of the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1970s. For more information, visit the National Archives.