Removing poop from Portland Harbor 50 years ago was 1st step to the city’s waterfront boom

PORTLAND, Maine — Pull the handle on the back of any toilet in the city and whatever you’ve deposited will go swirling, clockwise down the drain and — poof — it’s out of your life forever. It’s an almost magical process.

But there’s no wizardry at work, and nothing really vanishes.

Instead, the sewage travels through miles of subterranean pipes and hosts of gargantuan, seething pumps before ending up at a treatment plant on the east end of Munjoy Hill just a few hours later.

Then, less than a day after that, the solids are trucked up Interstate 95, bound for Alton’s Juniper Ridge Landfill. Likewise, the liquid wastewater is scrubbed clean via several mechanical, organic and chemical operations, then ejected into Casco Bay, near Pomeroy Rock.

It’s a complicated process that has been going on around the clock since the plant came online in 1979. Before that, millions of gallons of human waste spewed directly into Portland Harbor every day.

The wastewater plant is there today because the federal Clean Water Act required it.

The act, introduced by a Maine lawmaker, turns 50 this year. The mandated sewage facility, along with other massive Portland infrastructure investments back then, helped transform the city waterfront from a sleepy, mostly derelict part of town into an economically vibrant destination.

The Clean Water Act is the primary governing mechanism for regulating water pollution in the United States. It was introduced in 1971 by Maine’s U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie. After passing Congress the next year, it was vetoed by President Richard Nixon.

Portland Water District Maintenance Operator Jeremiah Steward (left) and Director of Wastewater Services Scott Firmin take scientific readings at the treatment plant on the East End on Friday, June 10, 2022. Before the plant was built in the 1970s, millions of gallons of raw sewage spewed into ; Bay every day. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

But Congress overrode the veto, making it the law of the land.

The act brought in sweeping, new rules regarding pollution. Cities were no longer allowed to dump untreated wastewater directly into lakes, rivers or the ocean.

By 1977, two years before the treatment plant became operational, Portland was still sending 14 million gallons of raw sewage straight into Back Cove and Portland Harbor everyday as it had for hundreds of years.

“I remember the smell,” said William Needleman, Portland’s waterfront director and a native of the city. “Back Cove was an open sewer.”

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