Lessons from Effective Opposition: Preventing a Landfill from Being Sited in the Penobscot Watershed

This is Naked Capitalism fundraising week. 405 donors have already invested in our efforts to shed light on the dark and seamy corners of finance. Join us and participate via our Tip Jar, which shows how to give via credit card, debit card, PayPal, or check. Read about why we’re doing this fundraiser, what we’ve accomplished in the last year, and our current target. 

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This is a brief account of one of many small skirmishes — small battles that flare and then wink out, unreported — that are taking place all across the United States right now on the terrain of resource extraction: Whether fracking, or fracking sand, or mountaintop removal, or bottling water, or any profit-making operation where the locals are left to bear the externalities and the depletion and damage that remain, while the profits and the rents go elsewhere. Often, the locals win; there’s no aggregated data — naturally! — and so we don’t know how often. I thought I’d document some aspects of one victory, partly because the story comes from the Great State of Maine, and partly for a reason I’ll get to at the end.

Brief, this account is, because I played no role in the victory, and only a peripheral role in the work that set the context for the victory. So let me begin with the triumph dance. The Bangor Daily News, September 24, 2014: 

For the time being, the controversial proposal for a landfill in either Greenbush or Argyle has been shut down by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the agency announced in a news release Wednesday.

(To be fair, this is a “draft denial,” but it’s highly unlikely DEP will reverse itself.) Greenbush and Argye are two small towns in “the unorganized territories” of Maine. The Penobscot — fishing grounds claimed by the Penobscot Nation — runs between them. In Argyle, the landfill was to be situated on an esker next to a wetlands, through which a tributary to the Penobscot ran. Hence, runoff-off, leachate, and — when the liner fails, as all landfill liners do — toxins would all flow into the Penobscot, affecting every living being downstream that depends on Penobscot water. And then, of course, there would be the hundred or so trucks coming and going each day.

The Maine DEP stated in its denial of the landfill application filed by Municipal Review Committee Inc. that there was sufficient capacity to handle present waste disposal needs without the addition of a new landfill site…..

Because our filings to the DEP demolished the MRC’s bullshit!

An informational meeting in May became hostile at times, with some people in the audience yelling at Municipal Review Committee members.

I was at that meeting; it was quite decorous. And I have been to landfill meetings where heavy-duty yelling did take place.

The Municipal Review Committee, which represents 180 towns in Maine, envisioned a multiuse facility that would include a zero-sort center and an operation that would produce ethanol and other fuels for heating.

On the operation that would produce ethanol, landfill advocates say all sorts of things; the operators of the other landfill in the story (Juniper Ridge, of which more in a minute) said they were going to grow tomatoes on their landfill. But look at the economics: The most profitable thing a landfill operator can do is pile trash up as high as they can, as fast as they can (with the right level of “tipping fees”). MR SUBLIMINAL Reminds me of banking! So why would they want to do anything else? That’s why, at least in my mind, these “add ons” always fail; they were never meant to succeed. And when they do fail, the operator will come back to the state for a permit change, tp expand the landfill, or take in new forms of waste — because that’s what they wanted to do in the first place. In this case, the so-called ethanol operation was still in development, so we were being asked to bet the Penobscot on a beta version.

So, why the success? How did 277 people with no town government beat back a powerful organization like the Municipal Review Committee, which represents 187 cities and towns? What follows isn’t quite speculation, since I know the towns, the issues, and many of the people involved, but it’s not real reporting, either, since that would include interviews, and so forth. With those caveats, I ask again, why the success?

First, Argyle’s size and location worked to its advantage. Argyle’s people were easy to rally — who needs an email blast when you can put up a sign in your yard? — and shared common motivations: After all, the nice thing about the unorganized territories is… that they’re unorganized. And the town is an interesting, overlapping mix of echt Mainers, university types (we’re near a university), and people who, having bought farms to get away from it all in the back of beyond, found themselves in the crosshairs not only of landfill developers, but global players pushing worse projects. Argyle mobilized instantly, and were blessed with strong interior lines of communication.

Second, the Penobscot Nation involved themselves, on behalf of their fishing rights and the river itself. It’s a powerful moment when the Chief stands up in a meeting and says “This won’t happen.” (Definitely FWIW, but I have a general sense from the Idle No More movement that  the tribes are stirring, and that this is the flip side of the general crapification and doubling down on #FAIL of the overclass in this country.) Concretely, the Penobscot Nation, as a nation, has access to science and lawyers, in addition to being powerful advocates for their cause.)

Third, legacy party politics worked in Argyle’s favor. Our loose cannon Republican governor, Paul LePage, whose administration runs the Maine DEP, has plenty of echt Mainers in his base, and listens to them. His practice is in great contrast to the corrupt and crony-ridden Democratic governor who preceded him, John Baldacci, who successfully used “Shock Doctrine” tactics to get a ginormous local landfill, Juniper Ridge, sited, also in wetlands, also near the Penobscot. 

Finally, Argyle was blessed with articulate spokespersons who could take their case to the print and broadcast media. (It’s actually amazing how articulate people can become when their ox is about to be gored.)

In contrast to the lightning war waged by Argyle, the battle against Juniper Ridge has been  been going on for a decade, beginning almost as a guerilla action to highlight abuses (“sooting incidents”) by the operator, get the trucks off our local roads, try to put some spine in the local compradors, and try to prevent or restrict new permitting. Ultimately, the Juniper Ridge group finally managed to limit that landfill’s expansion (thanks again, amazingly enough, to the LePage administration, which for the first time allowed the landfill operator to be put under oath, something Baldacci never did).

So it might be said that the Juniper Ridge effort was at best a highly qualified success, and the Argyle effort a clear win, but I don’t think that would be fair. For one thing, “Shock Doctrine” tactics really work, which is why they get used again and again; Juniper Ridge was sold to the public on the basis that it would “save the mill” by supplying the mill’s boiler with fuel, which didn’t work, of course, any more than the tomatoes did, but saving jobs is a powerful pitch in a bad economy that’s desperate for them. (Years later, of course, the mill closed anyhow.) A victory against Juniper Ridge at the beginning was simply not there to be had. Less trivially, the Juniper Ridge effort, as it were, “set the table” for the Argyle effort, and in several ways. (In the remote possibility that anyone from either effort reads this, I’m not trying to rank; I’m trying to connect.)

Here’s a quick list of the characteristics or assets that the Juniper Ridge effort developed over the years. (I’m using the clumsy word “effort” in each case to avoid using “group,” or “movement,” or “organization” because none of them quite seem to fit. Suggestions welcome for an issue-based self-organized group that persists for many years; “club” seems to fit better than anything, but that has hobbyist connotations.) Herewith:

  1. Nothing formal, no budget (not even a bake sale);
  2. Regular, well-run meetings;
  3. Credibility with the media;
  4. Credibility with the regulators;
  5. Skill with documents;
  6. Skill with writing and design;
  7. Access to science;
  8. Expertise in the permitting process;
  9. Have each others back.

The organizational characteristics, (1) and (2), might be useful to you, if you become civically engaged, but were not especially useful to Argyle, since their milieu was different from that of the Juniper Ridge effort, which included a university town, and a mill town. (3) and (4) were useful to Argyle in the sense that Juniper Ridge effort could provide backup and blessing, as well as pass on the knowledge of which regulators to talk to, and how to talk to them. Argyle had plenty of skill with documents, writing, and design, and access to science. 

However, of all the characteristics, I think the last two were the most important. Expertise in the permitting process (8) is important because “Shock Doctrine” tactics are designed to paralyze the will through surprise, but also assume that the shocked victim is ignorant of how to resist. In fact , the permitting process can provide the ability to resist, and now a large cadre of dedicated people in the Penobscot Valley know how to work it.

Finally, (9), have each other’s back is possibly the most important of all. I don’t know how to express it, since I’ve never experienced anything like it; typically, when people work together for a long time on subject matter of common interest in the public realm, there’s an institutional setting of some kind. Not so here. Practically, having each other’s back means that when the East-West Corridor rears its ugly head again, or the powers that be decide, yet again, that a landfill in our area would be a really good idea, “the club” can go into action without a lot of wasted motion. And if things get as bad as some of us think they might, that’s going to be very, very useful, for what is to come.

So, if any of you are there are working on your own projects, I hope this is useful. This thing of ours seems gossamer light; you can’t see it from the air. But in Argyle, and at Juniper Ridge, it’s quite effective.

* * *

I said I had another reason to write this piece, and here it is: There seems to be, in some corners of the left, a sense of despair, an almost ritualized sense of despair, like a dog chewing its tail. The general idea seems to be that the powers that be are far too smart, well-organized, ruthless, and well-armed for any act of resistance to succeed.

But in fact, acts of resistance do succeed, as stories like this one of resistance to landfills prove. And the powers that be are not that smart, not that well-organized, not that ruthless, and not even that well-armed. (Come on. Why are the weapons they lost the war in Iraq with going to work in police departments? In ten years, planters.)

The powers that be didn’t want to abolish slavery, didn’t want anyone to have the vote, didn’t want universal men’s suffrage, didn’t want universal women’s suffrage, didn’t want Social Security, didn’t want civil rights, didn’t want Medicare, and didn’t want gay marriage. And yet all these came to be. Many of these came to be slowly. But all of them, every single one of them, came to be only after failure after failure after failure after failure. You lose until you win.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Politics on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Everythings Jake

    Well, the trash is going somewhere, so unless Argyle-ians manage to exert themselves to something beyond NIMBY-ism, extracted to even a modestly more macro level, this is a representative victory how?

    1. Everythings Jake

      That was framed badly. I don’t mean to discount the victory, but more simply to wonder, how do these acts of resistance get linked together, to effect change that reduces the need for landfills themselves. I think the act of organization is itself instructive, but if its aim is simply to prevent (or achieve) something locally, but is not connected to prevention or achievement elsewhere, that’s also a challenge to overcome, and is where I get lost (and succumb to a measure of despair).

      1. lambert strether

        Well, I responded to the bad framing below. That said, I think I (kinda) answered this. The network exists, but it’s more like an invisible spider-web because it’s trust-based. A superset of the same crowd beat back the East-West Highway once, and can do it again. I don’t know if that scales to continental scope, but it’s doing OK for the Penobscot Watershed, which is not small.

    2. Steve H.

      All dump sites are local. For example, “Haina, Dominican Republic, has severe lead contamination because of lead battery recycling…” [http://www.livescience.com/4226-world-10-polluted-places.html]

      The model of unorganized small units finding a way to lever heavily organized foes may be a way to scale up from NIMBY efficiently. “…size and location worked to its advantage. Argyle’s people were easy to rally — who needs an email blast when you can put up a sign in your yard?” The ‘energy returned on energy invested’ of citizens in a town can have a large impact despite low energy investment. To what degree can towns in a state do the same thing without having expensive organizational infrastructure?

      1. Steve H.

        Rang a bell with something Yves wrote yesterday: “We are not a not for profit, sadly. The cost of accounting and other compliance and the administrative burden is REALLY high, which is why we can’t (yet) go that route.”

      2. lambert strether

        I wish we could go back to dump-picking, it’s an old Maine tradition. I have happy memories of going to the dump with my father. We always found good stuff!

    3. lambert strether

      In the short term, Juniper Ridge a state-owned landfill into which this trash could go. The operator would have to be beaten about the head and ears, but this is the ultimate purpose of that landfill.

      In the longer term, waste processing as close as possible to the source is the only way to force people to deal with the externalities they create through consumption. (Dump your own goddamn trash in your own goddamned yard!)

      Finally, while NIMBY is a term of abuse, the clear purpose of the term is simply to discredit those who have issues with their resources being extracted for others’ gain. In fact, NIMBYs are generally the only ones who are incentivized to investigate these proposals; you did notice that the power generation proposal was completely half-baked?

  2. Ulysses

    Thanks for this great and inspiring post!

    “the club” can go into action without a lot of wasted motion….The general idea seems to be that the powers that be are far too smart, well-organized, ruthless, and well-armed for any act of resistance to succeed.
    But in fact, acts of resistance do succeed,”
    There are indeed victories against the Man every day! Even when the specific cause that has united people in resistance doesn’t succeed, the creation of a “club” that has learned to trust their power to work together against powerful interests is a precious resource.
    We learn important information about the limits, and capabilities, of authoritarian repressive techniques whenever we do something beyond pissing and moaning online.
    I well remember, early in 2012, how simply arranging phony protests via e-mail, texts, and face-to-face conversations prompted NYPD to dispatch vans, barricades, etc. to the supposed “protest site.” This helped us to identify informers, and compromised lines of communication– very useful knowledge to have.
    TPTB are only made more powerful when people are unduly afraid of them. Cautious, organized resistance is always preferable to surrender. Even small victories are enough to inspire others to resist long enough to wear down the oppressors and gain larger advances. As Paolo Borsellino told us: “Chi ha paura muore ogni giorno, chi non ha paura muore una volta sola.” Why die inside your heart every day with fear? Why not struggle openly and fiercely against oppression and die only once?

  3. diptherio

    Thanks for the report, Lambert, and congratulations on this (temporary) victory. They’ll be coming back, one way or another, as you are well aware. Keep your powder dry

    1. lambert strether

      “This enemy you cannot kill. You can only drive it back damaged into the depths and teach your children to watch the waves for its return.”

  4. SaltyJustice

    ‘The Man’ wins generally and loses specifically.

    It’s just nice to know that sometimes the good guys win, despite the endless parade of defeats we watch coming through the news every day.

    1. lambert strether

      Well, for some odd reason, the victories are written up and forgotten, while the defeats are pounded into us day after day after day.

  5. trish

    My feeling- ditch “club.” hobbyist connotations, yes, along with exclusivity, elitism, or, at the very least, only for those who know how to play a particular game.

    My suggestion: community brigade.

    First I like “community’ a lot. Obama may have corrupted ‘community organizer” but he didn’t ruin ‘community.’
    It suggests- to me- a connected group of human beings (rather than/versus the aliens to humanity that we are essentially up against). It connotates cohesion and shared interests. In-it-together sort of thing (which fits with having each other’s back). And it doesn’t have the sterility that some of the terms have (ie ‘organization’). Community is a warmer term.

    Brigade may sound a bit military, but I think of those rural volunteer fire/bucket brigades and while it has perhaps the negative connotation of ‘putting out fires,’ in a sense these shared-interest/issue groups are struggling to put out fires. and military-ish? Well, we really are fighting a war, considering what we’re up against.

    1. lambert strether

      I do think “brigade” has military connotations to be avoided, but I do like the metaphor of a “volunteer fire department.”

      So, volunteer _____ department….

  6. Harry Lerwill

    congratulation on the victory.

    A small group of us have been watching the developments with interest, since our plans are to relocate to Maine, possibly the Bangor area, over the next year or so. Our plan is to find a city or county that will allow the development of a sustainable intentional community, perhaps along the lines of the one near Belfast, ME.

    I’d certainly love to tap that expertise on local permitting when it comes time to choose a locale.

    1. lambert strether

      Well, we have landfill permitting expertise. But I’m certain that you will find people to help you. There is what I call a “hippie gradient” that peaks near Unity, ME. Belfast area sounds good, if only because I can’t think of one up here in Bangor. (Belfast seems very far away to me, since I don’t drive.) Be aware that Maine is poor and Maine is cold in the winter. Tough roots are needed.

  7. Rosario

    I’m sure this has already been taken into consideration but consider adding to the list:

    10. 95.65% White (according to Wikipedia)

    Living in Louisville, KY, one of the most heavily segregated cities in the nation, I’ve seen first hand how well people listen when someone is in the “white” club even if they are not rich. I also take some issue with locality environmentalism as it’s adherents have the tendency to ignore the flames burning all around them until they lick the wood of their homes. Please know that my criticism comes from a sincere concern for the cause.

    1. lambert strether

      I think “ignore the flames burning all around them until they lick the wood of their homes” is all too human, unfortunately. Perhaps we need to redefine what “home” means more broadly.

Comments are closed.