Maine’s Polluted Past – and Future?

Fri, 10/29/2021 - 2:00pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Jobs aren’t the only thing the US lost to China over the last 40 years. Much of the pollution that goes with large-scale manufacturing also made its way across the Pacific. The US Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the early 1970s get the lion’s share of the credit for the gradual improvement in US river and air quality since that time. But closing factories, steelworks, and mines as the US transformed into a service economy helped even more, while China became filthy by building itself into the “world’s factory.”

The jobs and the pollution moved together, leaving much of the US an arguably poorer and more divided – but definitely cleaner -- place. Over the last few years, cohorts on both sides of the great political divide have decided we should start taking back the jobs and manufacturing we spent the last four decades exporting to China. But what of the pollution? Can we have one (the jobs) without the other (the pollution)?

In Maine, one can glimpse in miniature the enormity of historic US economic change by looking at the many dams along our rivers, built to power paper, woolen and other heavily polluting factories and now considered tourist attractions, even as they continue to block breeding of fish from alewives to Atlantic salmon. Or go further back in time and contemplate the era of treeless Camden Hills and of quarries scarring the landscape.

There’s much to be said for letting someone else do your dirty work. Right now, Midcoast Maine is also providing some useful illustrations of the choices and tradeoffs the US as a whole will face if it decides to take back those jobs – ignoring how few workers high-tech factories of the future will actually employ. Take the discovery, chronicled in Maine Monitor by Kate Cough, of an apparently rich lithium deposit in Newry, Maine, near the Sunday River ski resort.

Lithium is a key component in the batteries in computers, cell phones and increasingly – if climate change is to be held in livable bounds – cars and trucks. But mining lithium is dirty and ugly. It may not even be possible under strict new Maine mining laws, passed to prevent a recurrence of the arsenic, lead, zinc, thallium, PCB and general land and water pollution from the Callahan zinc and copper mine, operated mainly toward the end of America’s now romanticized industrial era, around 1970.

Much as the Newry lithium deposit abuts one of Maine’s largest ski resorts, so the Callahan mine was in the same idyllic coastal Maine township of Brooksville that is home to famed organic and experimental farming ventures including Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s Four Season Farm and the Good Life Center on property once home to Scott and Helen Nearing. Maine as a center of natural beauty, tourism and progressive lifestyles never seems far from Maine’s past – and perhaps future – as a center of natural-resource exploitation and manufacturing.

What’s the appropriate balance between the high-paying jobs we imagine would go with bringing industry back, and the clean water, air and land we cherish? And even if we don’t think the jobs would actually materialize in large numbers, are we morally obliged to accept some of the dirt if we want to be active consumers of so-called clean products that have dirty roots?  

To be specific, how should progressives determined to save the climate and overcome our national addiction to economic growth view proposals to develop the Newry lithium deposit? The world’s leading lithium producers today, in order of volume, are Chile, Australia, Argentina and China. The metal is frequently strip mined. As it moves to rapidly electrify its auto fleet, the US is looking to open large lithium mines, initially mainly in Nevada, stirring intense debate among indigenous tribes and ranchers alike.   

The knee-jerk reaction of many activists and others concerned about the environment will be to fight the Newry project; to point to recycling and less driving as better answers. But could Maine — not instead of, but in addition to, those preferred options -- take a lead in developing relatively clean ways to mine at least some of the lithium near Newry? What we shouldn’t want is to yet-again export our pollution to poorer countries that feel compelled to accept land destruction as a price of development.

Recycling lithium – and everything else – must surely be a big part of the answer to how we can live in greater harmony with the planet. It starts with recycling of both waste and manufactured products, as at the Mid-Coast Solid Waste transfer station owned by Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and Hope; or with the similarly motivated Repair Café in Belfast; or the numerous used clothing and household goods stores that dot local towns, not to mention yard sales. The bigger goal of a “circular economy” is, in a sense, just more of this type of thing.

But there will need to be new material inputs. Even if we break our addiction to economic growth and excessive consumption. Even if less polluting substitutes are found for lithium and other polluting materials now so heavily used in batteries. This is where our discussion and eventual decision as a state and as communities on issues such as the lithium deposits at Newry will be telling. Can we imagine new, better ways that will leave us less dependent on other countries such as China and Chile without returning to the pollution levels of yesteryear?