Penobscot River savior set environmentalist standard

Posted May 16, 2010, at 6:49 p.m.

Maine lost a groundbreaking environmentalist — and the Penobscot River a crucial protector — with the recent death at 84 of Francis W. Hatch Jr. of Castine and Boston. His extraordinary environmental activism stemmed in large part from his love of his family’s saltwater farm on the Penobscot River and would ultimately — and repeatedly — save the river itself.

Frank Hatch was born in Massachusetts, but his family’s ties to Castine stretch back generations. The farm sits on the east bank of the Penobscot River as it joins Penobscot Bay. It’s a classic Maine setting, combining coastal waterfront with fields and forest and even a view of a lighthouse — at Fort Point State Park. And he loved exploring the river, rowing regularly into the latter years of his life.

Frank Hatch’s environmental leadership first became prominent when, as a Republican member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he wrote the 1965 Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, commonly referred to there as the Hatch Act. It was the first wetlands protection act in the United States.

With a record as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, he rose to become Minority Leader of the Massachusetts House and ultimately the Republican nominee for governor in 1978. He lost that election by a narrow margin to Democrat Edward King and then left elected office, turning his attention to environmental issues across New England — but with a special commitment to his beloved Penobscot River.

He became chairman of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, where for more than a decade he championed and led nationally renowned and often replicated environmental campaigns. It was then that his protection of the Penobscot River began, as the foundation went to court and succeeded in blocking construction of the proposed “Big A” dam, which would have destroyed the river as we know it. Blocking the dam preserved the western branch of the river — its ecology, its beauty and its pleasure for fishing and kayaking.

Under Frank’s leadership and with the support of environmental, labor and consumer groups, the foundation then forced the state of Maine to end a decade-long effort to construct a marine cargo terminal on Sears Island at the mouth of the Penobscot River. That terminal would have transformed the character and environment of the lower Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay, destroying one of the most visually stunning bodies of water in the world. Although state plans for the cargo terminal have resurfaced since, they have so far been confined to the drawing board.

From 1987 to 2006, Frank Hatch served as chairman of The John Merck Fund, a foundation created by the family of his wife of 58 years, Serena Merck Hatch. During that period, the fund became the earliest major funder of energy-efficiency advocacy in New England and one of the largest funders nationally of advocacy to protect public health from dangerous chemicals in everyday products. In the mid-1990s, the fund was also instrumental in a six-state initiative to clean up the 15 coal-fired power plants in New England and to eliminate the use of highly toxic mercury in favor of safer alternatives.

Frank later co-chaired a campaign to preserve the Pingree Woods in northern Maine — a campaign that raised $28 million to preserve 700,000 acres of forest.

And as a member of the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council, he was instrumental in getting NRDC to join with the Maine People’s Alliance to file a successful and precedent-setting lawsuit to clean up mercury dumped by HoltraChem into the Penobscot River at Orrington. The case addressed the most extensive, waterborne mercury contamination in the nation. The legal victory in 2002 established the precedent of holding an industrial polluter responsible for contamination downstream of a plant site. The subsequent clean-up investigation is still under way.

Frank Hatch’s passion for the beauty of Maine, for its environmental quality and for the health of its people never flagged, nor did his sense of stewardship, which was rooted in summers spent with his parents on that saltwater farm. He was still actively engaged in philanthropic initiatives until a few days before he died.

His legacy is one to be cherished and maintained — through protection of the environment, concern for public health and an ongoing commitment to civic engagement. Frank Hatch helped preserve the physical beauty and distinctiveness of the Penobscot River, Penobscot Bay and much of the state, but his greatest legacy may be the example that he set for us all.

Mike Belliveau is executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Bangor. Henry Miller is chief operating officer of Goodman Media International. Both worked closely with Frank Hatch over many years.

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