Peter Vigue, the Cianbro construction giant's CEO and chief promoter of the East-West Highway, impoliticly calls the state's central region the "empty middle." The locals, however, have told him there's somebody there. Testifying to the breadth of opposition, the towns of Monson and Sangerville have passed moratoriums on development connected to the highway.
Likewise, Casco, Bethel, Raymond, and Waterford in southern and western Maine have opposed the pipeline's transport of tar-sands oil (along with 39 towns in Vermont and others in New Hampshire and Quebec, according to Bob Klotz of 350 Maine). The 236-mile pipeline at one point goes alongside Sebago Lake, a recreational mecca and source of Portland's drinking water. (The present flow of regular crude oil would have to be reversed. It now goes from South Portland, where tankers unload it, to a refinery in Montreal.)
Even Democratic Senator Troy Jackson, the assistant majority leader from far-northern Allagash, who in a recent legislative hearing opposed bills that would put up roadblocks to a Bald Mountain mine, admitted in an interview that he has constituents "on both sides of the issue" — despite the touted economic benefit to his poor Aroostook County district. He also admitted he's personally "not 100 percent for" the mine.
Remarkably, the biggest threats now exercising environmentalists are not imminent (see sidebar, "The Issues"). The quick and muscular reaction to them expresses the movement's strength, but it also may be an expression in the Internet Age of the knowledge — or suspicions — on the part of environmentalists of the interconnected, long-range machinations of global capital.
The 350 Maine and anti-mining activists, for example, suspect connections between what they are opposing and the East-West Highway. They say it could be used as a conduit for tar-sands oil as well as ore extracted at Bald Mountain. Cianbro's Vigue, after all, has promoted it as an "energy corridor."
"It's legitimate to worry" about the hidden agenda, says the Natural Resources Council of Maine's longtime chief lobbyist, Pete Didisheim. Vigue's statements about what the corridor would carry have been vague and ever-changing.
A BASE OF STRENGTH
The environmental movement in Maine "has been strong for a long time," says Didisheim. The pre-eminent state environmental organization, the 54-year-old NRCM has 12,000 members, a $2-million annual budget, and 21 staffers. It not only lobbies on legislation: it monitors the all-important rules promulgated after legislation is passed, speaks out on federal issues, and engages in legal actions.
Over the past 15 years — typically, in coalition with other groups — the NRCM has successfully pushed for conservation-land-acquisition bonds; the recycling of electronic waste; the dismantling of Kennebec and Penobscot River dams; and the creation of the Efficiency Maine trust, which financially assists businesses and residents to conserve energy. The NRCM recently helped restore the alewife run in the St. Croix River.
Despite national surveys showing a weakening of environmental concerns during the continuing economic doldrums, in Maine support for preserving the environment remains high — a "pretty stable sentiment," Didisheim says. In a poll done for his group in 2011, over 90 percent of Mainers said environmental preservation should be a priority of lawmakers.
While in the past Maine's established eco-organizations have found themselves at loggerheads with single-issue groups (in the 1980s it took years for the forces working to shut down the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant to bring the NRCM to an anti-nuclear position), the mainline outfits are now working on many issues with the new grass roots.