The Power of a Volunteer

By Jeff Reardon

Tom Whittle is not your average TU member. I first met Tom about two years ago, soon after he retired to Maine.  I’m not sure where we first met. It may have been at SuperBoo, an annual mid-winter event held in a middle school gym where we Maine anglers shake off the shack-nasties by gathering to fondle and cast bamboo rods.

Tom’s a fine rod maker. He literally wrote the book where David Van Burgel, another Maine rod maker, found the taper specifications for my favorite rod. David’s wife Kathy Scott organizes the SuperBoo event each year, and is also a long-time leader and volunteer with the Kennebec Chapter of TU. I knew David and Kathy through TU; they knew Tom through the bamboo rod makers’ grapevine and knew he was active with TU in Pennsylvania before he moved here. So it was probably inevitable that I’d get to know Tom once he moved here.

I do remember when Tom first made an impression on me. In March 2012, I put out an action alert to our members about a last-minute bill in the Maine Legislature. An out-of-state mining company had an “emergency” bill to gut Maine’s mining rules so they could site a gold mine at the headwaters of two of our finest trout rivers. Tom got the action alert, sent a great e-mail to his state representative, and forwarded me the representative’s response with some follow up questions. A week or so later, at the legislative hearing, Tom gave what I still think is the best testimony I’ve ever seen in the Legislature.

It turns out that Tom had been integral in with his local TU chapter in efforts to address acid mine drainage on Stony Creek—his favorite stream and the namesake for his rod-making business. Tom, being an engineer who actually knows how things work and how to explain them, tells this better than I do:

Our local TU Chapter built and maintains a diversion well treatment system  . . . . The hydraulic pressure of the diverted water, injected into the bottom of the chamber, fluidizes the bed of limestone causing the stones to be ground and dissolved into the water on it’s way back into the stream. The system was installed in 1987 with a second chamber added in 2000 to handle higher flows. The system requires weekly maintenance by volunteers who last year spent 344 hours shoveling 99 tons of limestone into the chambers.

That detail—99 tons of limestone of shoveled by volunteers every year, forever, or else someone’s favorite trout stream would be dead—was just the right touch. Tom’s been back to the Legislature on this issue, and he came to testify about mining rules in front of Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection last fall. He’s been part of a growing majority of Maine citizens, no longer silent, demanding that Maine hold mining companies to a standard that protects our waters and their fish. Tom couldn’t make a hearing on proposed new mining rules in the Maine Legislature yesterday, but his influence was certainly felt. He’d been in touch with his legislators, and the best testimony yesterday came from State Sen. Chris Johnson, from Tom’s district. Sen. Johnson cited a letter from Tom at length, and made an eloquent plea for his peers to reject the attempt to weaken Maine’s mining rules:

Sulfide ore metallic mining is something we need to do right, or not do at all. Because Maine’s slogan is not, “I remember it before the acid and arsenic spoiled it.” Our slogan is “The way life should be”.

 

It was an example of the great strength of TU’s volunteers—a power that paid staff like me can’t match.  Volunteers like Tom Whittle speak with absolute authenticity. Nobody is paying them to be there, and everyone knows they’ve given up whatever they normally do in order to testify. If we’re able to keep up the pressure and keep these bad mining rules off the books, Tom Whittle deserves a good chunk of the credit. I’ve seen a lot of professional lobbyists at work, and nobody I’ve seen has been more effective.

 

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