A River Czar Arrives
Professor Lawrance takes on the river clean-up in the 1940's.


By Michael Gordon
Reprinted in edited form from the Lewiston Sun Journal

By the late 1940s, the polluted, oxygen-starved Androscoggin desperately needed help, someone to lead it back to health. The river needed a master, and it found one in the form of a scholarly chemist with owlish glasses.

Before state and federal agencies stepped up, before conservation groups became players, the task of cleaning up and advocating for the Androscoggin River fell to Walter A. Lawrance, professor of chemistry at Bates.

In the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, he alone, empowered by the courts, had the authority to set pollution standards for the entire paper industry on the Androscoggin. He was enforcing antipollution laws on the river decades before anyone had ever dreamed of a federal Environmental Protection Agency.

And he did it all while continuing to teach chemistry at Bates.

Lawrance enlisted some of his students to help him on the river. Gary Reed '61 spent the summer of 1960 shuttling with Lawrance on an old PT boat, testing the foul water and pouring oxygen-rich sodium nitrate into the river.

"At the hot part of the summer we dumped every day and sampled every day," said Reed, who now lives in Falmouth.

The river keepers applied tons of sodium nitrate to the water, trying in vain to replace the oxygen that had been gobbled up by the organic waste from the paper mills, which use and then dump tremendous amounts of water in paper processing. Gases bubbled up from the river water -- the color of pickle juice -- roiling the surface of the river.

"It was terribly smelly," Lawrance recalled in a 1978 interview. "A survey had been taken (in the early 1940s) and indicated the unpleasant odor from Gorham, N.H., to Livermore Falls in Maine. The river was devoid of oxygen, a very bad situation."

Lawrance, who died in 1987 at age 93, debunked the reports of paint peeling off walls as exaggerations. But he said the river was so bad that "jewelers couldn't keep their silver clean. It would turn brown."

Trying to restore the oxygen levels was a battle. The mills never ran out of waste.

"It was first aid where major surgery was indicated," Reed said. "Over the years that major surgery took place. You could not believe it is the same river today that existed in 1960. It is just so radically different."

In the early 1940s, the Maine Attorney General's Office recognized that radical steps were needed. It brought a lawsuit that prompted the courts to order that a "river master" be appointed. In 1947, Lawrance was tapped and charged with developing antipollution standards for the Androscoggin. Over time, other court cases made him a virtual czar on matters of industrial pollution.

Seeking cooperation with the paper companies rather than confrontation, Lawrance led the effort to create the Androscoggin River Technical Committee, a group composed of two representatives from each mill.

In 1953, the committee reported to the companies that discharge standards were not enough to clean up the waterway. Rather than face further court action, the paper companies asked the committee to set new limits for the industry.

The mills subsequently made significant reductions, but the river was still foul. The solution would not come until the mills developed new processes to manufacture paper that burned off the strongest wastes, leaving only the weaker ones to be discharged. In addition, paper mills would begin treating their waste-water discharge, removing organic material and otherwise reducing its capacity to steal oxygen from the river.

The Androscoggin River Technical Committee met until 1977. In March 1978, a court order ended the reign of river master Lawrance.

In ending the Lawrance era, the court found that in the days of growing environmental consciousness, the river master position duplicated the efforts of other agencies, public and private. Others had picked up the oars that for so many years Lawrance had manned alone.

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