The state motto for Maine is “Dirigo” — meaning “we lead.”
This was the leadership position that Sen. Edmund S. Muskie took when he helped author the Clean Water Act and shepherd it through the U.S. Senate in 1972.
It has been a long road to clean water and will continue to be so for all of humankind. Sen. Muskie was an environmental leader and champion of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1970 Clean Air Act. He was a native of Rumford, a graduate of Bates College, and he earned his law degree from Cornell University. He later was elected to the Maine Legislature, both the House and Senate, then became governor. He went onto the U.S. Senate in 1958.
Muskie recognized pollution as a public health problem and became chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. He was a pioneer in creating these two legislative environmental masterpieces, which could very well have been called the “Muskie Acts.”
Muskie was recognized by the Senate and many NGOs as the most important environmental leader at that time. He maintained his devotion to environmental advocacy and knew how important it was to protect people’s health and welfare from pollution. He also strongly felt that protecting the environment also protected the economy, and he retained that commitment even during his failed attempt for the presidential race in 1968.
Muskie knew what he was talking about. He grew up in Rumford, on the banks of the Androscoggin River. He saw, smelled and felt the ravages of pollution and always considered knowledge and data to be valuable for making good decisions. He was always prepared in his committee deliberations with Senate colleagues, who became impressed with facts that Muskie knew.
And he was not bluffing. Ed Muskie wanted to solve problems by being an inclusive legislator and felt that technology could be used to reduce pollution and safeguard human health. He never felt that compromise was a dirty word and really understood the collaborative approach to reach consensus. This strong belief was so instilled with the Senate that the Clean Water Act survived a presidential veto by Richard Nixon. Nixon finally signed the act, after suffering a defeat from the unified Senate and trying to save his own face in politics.
So may we conclude that Ed Muskie’s work in the Senate represents the best legislative behavior of the times, and that he was a giant in environmental law by helping create the two acts.
This October, we celebrate 50 years of the Clean Water Act, which has improved and protected the quality of our Maine waters, especially the Androscoggin River, which was listed in 1972 as one of the top 10 polluted rivers in the nation.
The Clean Water Act is and has been a long road, long lived, effective and a model of supreme effectiveness for all people.
On Earth Day 1974, Ed Muskie’s concluding paragraph from his speech was printed in the Maine Law Review and the congressional record: “Brotherhood is both a form of freedom and a promise of sacrifice. As we learn that our planet is a fragile physical support, we learn that cooperation is what holds it and us together. We learn to see ourselves as free men able to give up that part of our freedom which is license and able to give by our own choice in order to preserve freedom for all men.”
This year, we continue our journey with the Clean Water Act. With every step along the way, we must do what Ed Muskie wrote about. The road to recovery is long because environmental protection is forever.
My best to all humankind — and to the inarticulate organisms that cannot speak for themselves.
Matthew Scott of Belgrade was a state fisheries biologist from 1959-1970. He became the chief biologist for the Department of Environmental Protection from 1970-1988, and served on the Board of Environmental Protection for two terms.
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