Millers River Memories

That unfortunate, 6,000-gallon Athol diesel spill into a Millers River tributary named Mill Brook on Dec. 22 sent my wheels awhirl.

The tanker-truck rollover that required Jaws of Life driver extraction unleashed reminiscence about my earliest newspaper days at the Greenfield Recorder. That means it took me back to the early 1980s when a previously near-dead Millers River, fouled by industrial pollution, human waste, and years of neglect, was reborn for trout stocking after a two-decade hiatus. The recent catastrophe especially reminded me of affable old pal Peter Mallett, whose animated calls I answered many times on deadline when I didn’t have time to talk or the heart to tell him so.

Mallett, 70-year-old founder of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association and self-appointed watershed watchdog, has devoted many years into making the Millers River watershed better for everyone. He seems to know every spring hole, squaretail brook, fiddlehead patch, and big old Hen of the Woods oak in the watershed; that and deer runs, berry patches, pheasant and partridge coverts, and maybe, just maybe even hot spots for arrowhead hunters. Who knows? The man may have even bumped into a hidden marijuana patch or two while bushwhacking the terrain.

Mallett not only has a wealth of knowledge to share. He’s put his money where his mouth is – personally buying, raising, and releasing trout of all sizes into the watershed, while raising a ruckus when anyone dares to disrespect his favorite river system.

I never met Mallett during my coverage of the Miller River renaissance. We crossed paths well after restoration and restocking was underway. By the time we met through many phone calls, faraway anglers were once again traveling to fish a trout stream that had once attracted the likes of Red Sox Hall of Famer and noted flyfisher Ted Williams and cohort Curt Gowdy, longtime voice of the Red Sox and host of ABC TV’s The American Sportsman in the 1960s and ‘70s. If the likes of Williams and Gowdy were fishing the Millers River during the glory years of our Grand Ole Game, then it had to be special, and was.

My first professional foray into Millers River country resulted in my first front-page story, and over time led to a Hampshire-Franklin District Attorney’s office investigation. Enlightened by a streamside tip that I chased and confirmed, I had become embroiled in a spicy newspaper war with a group of Millers River trout-fishing advocates from Wendell, whom I dubbed “Wendellites” in my Thursday Greenfield Recorder outdoor column On the Trail. The continuing story spawned many columns, which in turn drew angry letters-to-the-editor retorts in an entertaining and very public spat.

The type of controversy columnists dream about, it all began when I broke the unwelcome news that human consumption of Millers River fish was unsafe due to sedimentary PCB and heavy-metal poisoning. With half-lives in the thousands of years, the hazardous chemicals weren’t going anywhere soon. In fact, if we continue to give global-warming deniers a seat at the public-policy conference table, these river carcinogens may just outlast humanity on this planet.

Obviously, the Millers River activists who had worked hardest to put their free-flowing stream back on the Massachusetts trout-fishing map were not happy when the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife was forced to post streamside public-health warnings cautioning anglers that eating fish from the river could be hazardous to their health. As a result, I became Public Enemy No. 1 to the political Wendellites. It was fun. I rode the public debate in glee for some time in bold, black print.

Although I have largely lost touch with the Millers in recent years, I presume streamside warnings are still prominently displayed along the “major” river, a status that ensures it receives the biggest and best trout MassWildlife hatcheries have to offer, and plenty of them.

When I recently mentioned to Mallett the media war I ignited back in the ‘80s, he didn’t seem to associate me with those familiar streamside warnings he most likely resents. Originally from Athol, he may not have read the Recorder back then. So, I gave him a brief overview, beginning with how the whole fiasco started with a surreptitious streamside tip delivered by an unimpeachable source at the festive first stocking of the river below the Farley Flats railroad trestle in Erving.

That day at the popular fishing hole produced a celebratory scene – with stocking-truck motors purring, netsful of trout being dumped into the river, TV crews from Boston, Worcester, Springfield and maybe even Hartford filming the event for the nightly news. Scribes were there interviewing sources and scribbling notes in pads, while politicians, fish and wildlife officials and local gawkers schmoosed in the small, gravel parking area off Route 2. Yes, it was a glorious day in eastern Franklin County. After decades as an open industrial and human sewer before the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 kicked in, the proud Millers River was back.

Or, was it?

As it turned out, unbeknownst to those in attendance, including me, what is known in newsroom parlance as a “scoop” was about to rear its ugly head and rain on the parade.

Though after 40 years I may not recall every minute detail from that day, it seems to me that my source, a distinguished, bespectacled man getting on in age, was wearing a tweed jacket and tie with a gentleman’s top hat. He had spotted me talking to sources, recognized me from my weekly column sig, and approached me furtively away from the action as things were winding down. We had never met, but I was familiar with his son and his landed estate near the confluence of the Millers and Connecticut rivers. Identifying himself as a former chemist for Erving Paper Mill, he had some information I might find interesting.

When we slithered away from the mass, he delivered his bombshell. Although the decision to again stock the river was in his opinion a good thing, it was, he opined, irresponsible. He had fished the Millers since youth and was happy it was being reborn, but there was an important problem that was being ignored – or maybe even, dare say it, covered up. According to him, the river was contaminated with PCBs. He was certain the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) – now the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) – had records to prove it.

It was big news that had to be investigated, confirmed or denied – my new task.

Before the Internet and email era of news-gathering, I distinctly remember going home to South Deerfield, calling DEQE on the phone, and by dumb luck being connected to a spokesman whose Whately family I knew. Although I didn’t know the source himself, I did know his younger brother and sisters, and he knew who I was. He said he wasn’t familiar with any Millers River studies off the top of his head but would check into it. I gave him my phone number. He’d get back to me.

A day or two later, his call came. He said I was onto something and asked for my snail-mail address. He’d immediately send copies of records documenting Millers River PCB and heavy-metal pollution. These poisons were long-lasting, destined to remain in the sediment for millennia, contaminating all life feeding in the ecosystem. Though such pollution status does not preclude stocking or angling on a stream, state mandate demands that such waters be posted with warnings for anglers who may eat its fish.

I can’t say I was shocked. The Millers River had been my personal poster child for local polluted rivers, worse even than the Connecticut, into which as a teen I wouldn’t have dipped my pinky under the Sunderland Bridge. Younger folks today have no perception of this, but I do, because I lived it, as did Mallett.

As an Athol boy, Mallett says he saw raw sewage flowing through town in the ‘60s. Downstream, below Erving Paper Mill, the river’s color signaled to Route 2 travelers the color of toilet paper being producing on any given day. Mallett recalls the time when big suckers around the Starrett Tool Company dam were “committing mass suicide” by jumping out of the river to escape dreadful industrial chemicals dumped into the water.

So, no, I can’t say I was shocked to get confirmation of PCB contamination from my DEQE source, and likely neither were the people living in the Millers River valley. That doesn’t mean the news was welcome. Uh-uh. They didn’t want to hear it. At least not my Wendellite foes who had worked hardest to bring trout fishing back to their neighborhood for selfish reasons. That is, they wanted their own major river to fish, eliminating travel to the Deerfield River. It only got worse as I continued piecemealing out additional news and barbs they objected to, at time vociferously.

The Wendellites responded with hateful personal attacks in letters to the editor, and the entertaining battle went on for months, if not years. Every chance I got, I’d poke them, and they’d poke right back. Finally, though, they took the argument a step too far. Or at least that was the opinion of then-Recorder publisher Alexander Hutchison.

What stirred Hutchison’s ire and brought in the DA’s office was a terrorist note that arrived at my Recorder desk. As I recall, my name and Recorder address was typed onto the envelope’s face, and the threatening note inside was composed of bold letters cut and pasted from magazine headlines. Though I can’t quote the message verbatim, it was a warning from the sender that he knew my work schedule and where I lived and was tired of my Millers River columns. The pasted-on signature read “Abu Nidal,” whom I recognized as the Palestinian terrorist of the day.

To be honest, I was humored, not scared, by the letter and showed it around the newsroom with a chuckle. My Wendellite friends were all wound up, and I thought it was hilarious.

Not so with “Hutch,” by far the best of six publishers for whom I worked. When he caught wind of the threatening note, he marched it straight to the DA. Apparently, the DA’s office didn’t pursue it, because I was never aware of it being pursued.

All I can now say, decades later, is that I’m still kickin’ and Millers River sediment still holds PCBs and heavy metals. All it took to stir those contaminants back into the flow of my column was the unfortunate Dec. 22 oil spill, one that will likely have long-term effects on a proud and defenseless trout stream.

Frankly, the Millers River can’t seem to catch a break. The classic old trout stream bordering the ancient Mohawk Trail deserves better.

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