View Full Version : Maine's most wanted junkyard polluter

Ian McColgin
07-25-2005, 06:45 AM
Troubling reading for any who thinks one should have an absolute right to do anything one wants on and to one's own land.


Owner left mess that cost millions

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff | July 24, 2005

MEDDYBEMPS, MAINE -- The crimes of Harry Smith Jr., a former selectman and one of Maine's most wanted fugitives, ooze in his hometown.

There was the radioactive neutron generator that officials discovered nestled in weeds on his land off Route 191. There was the tractor-trailer packed with chemicals so reactive its side spontaneously melted in the woods he owns. Last year, workers found half-century-old acids leaking from containers stuffed in Smith's mother's basement next to the federally protected Dennys River.

''It's mind-boggling," said Jean Firth of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

US taxpayers have paid more than $20 million to clean up parts of five illegal military surplus junkyards Smith or his father operated for more than 50 years in this tiny Down East town near the Canadian border and there is more to do.

Smith re-contaminated one of his properties after officials spent more than $1 million scrubbing it clean. Today, hundreds of rusted boxcars, tractor-trailers, and vehicles still form twisted metal paths in his junkyards. ''He comes back and pollutes again and again," Firth said.

Smith was added to Maine's most-wanted criminal list earlier this year after failing to show up for a 2003 jail sentence on a probation violation following more than a decade of criminal violations and court orders for illegally handling hazardous or other types of waste.

How Smith, an affable ladies' man known for snowplowing neighbors' driveways, became the worst single polluter state officials can remember has become the stuff of legend in this remote reach of New England and a walking example of the clash between personal property rights and environmental protection.

Smith's friends and neighbors in Meddybemps either didn't know the extent of his pollution or chose to ignore it in a region where the belief that a man should be able to do what he wants on his own land runs deep. The lack of state oversight of town-licensed junkyards meant that for decades, authorities weren't aware Smith's business existed. And once they did find out, the slow grind of the justice system meant the damage Smith wreaked morphed into a jaw-dropping expense to clean.

''Ultimately if someone really wants to violate [environmental] law, it's very hard to stop them," said William Butler, a Maine Department of Environmental Protection specialist. ''The only thing we can do is go get them -- and that takes time. In a place like Meddybemps, it's even harder because most people have worked for Harry or are afraid of him . . . and it's not a place a lot of other people go to."

Officials say they believe Smith, 64, may still be in Maine and driving a white van with New Hampshire plates. They believe he attended his daughter's wedding in the last two years in Meddybemps, a town of about 140 people, but Smith's friends say they've heard he's in Venezuela and offer tight smiles to strangers who pry much deeper.
''Everyone says to me they hope he doesn't get caught," said Florence ''Boots" Johnson, Smith's former girlfriend, who works at Clark's Variety in nearby Calais and says Smith did nothing wrong. After Smith was added to Maine's most-wanted criminals list, joining the likes of James ''Whitey" Bulger, Johnson's boss tacked up a map, Harry's picture, and signs that read, ''Where in the World is Harry Smith" and ''Run Harry Run."
''It's not like he's a mass murderer," said Johnson.

In pages of court testimony and through his lawyer, Smith has maintained that he ran a legal salvage recycling business, even though he had no permit to do so. Most of the goods on his property, from submarine parts to canvas tents, were from surplus sales from military bases across New England that would package contaminated material with higher value items, Smith has testified. Smith has also said he did not know the waste was truly hazardous.

''His position was . . . he was doing [his business] in a lawful manner," said Schuyler G. Steele, Smith's lawyer. Steele, whose Newport, Maine, office is in an old boxcar Smith sold to him, said he hasn't heard from his client since he didn't show up for jail. Members of Smith's family declined to comment or didn't return calls.
Meddybemps, which is believed to be a Native American name for either the many alewives or islands in its signature lake, is a sprawling town of trees, two paved roads, and little else. There is no downtown to speak of -- only a community center and a closed grocery store -- and little attention from outsiders, save for summer people visiting the lake or the slice of Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in town.

Smith's father found Meddybemps in the 1940s, built a dam at the headwaters of the Dennys River to supply electricity to area towns, and moved his family next door. Soon, military items began showing up on the property. Smith took over the business from his father in the 1970s, and expanded it to four new sites, eventually stockpiling 1.3 million tires and items that included dummy torpedoes, old ammunition, thousands of paint cans, and leaking electrical transformers. Low levels of some chemicals eventually seeped into a local brook, state officials say.

Today, many neighbors call Smith's land an eyesore, but over the years, there were few official complaints. Through the decades, Smith put people to work when work was hard to find. He was kind -- allowing people to buy items on credit -- and helped find spare parts for the town fire truck. He always operated in cash, pulling wads of bills from his pockets on payday. Authorities still can't find any bank accounts of Smith's to seize to pay for the cleanup.

''People don't want to talk; we have to live in town," said one woman who asked not to be identified by name when speaking about Smith. Those who know Smith describe him as smart, a pack rat, and, by most local accounts, the father of about 10 children. He was married at least twice, friends say.

State officials finally received a complaint about Smith's junkyards in 1983 and soon realized several sites were deeply contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals, solvents, and other hazardous debris. The original area next to the Dennys River, called Eastern Surplus, was eventually declared a Superfund site. The US Department of Defense, where most of the pollution originated, contributed millions to clean it up.
Two other cleanups were conducted on Smith's land, including his tire pile, but he avoided prosecution because much of it was polluted before environmental laws existed and it was impossible to prove when the waste arrived on the property. But state authorities made it clear to Smith: No more polluting.

He didn't listen. In 1998, Smith was convicted on two misdemeanor criminal counts of taking in tires after being told to stop. He was sentenced to 60 days in prison and probation and served more jail time after violating probation.

By 2001, Maine DEP specialist Butler stumbled over new containers of hazardous waste on one of Smith's properties that officials had already cleaned. Smith was convicted in 2003 on a felony count of handling hazardous waste without a license from that case, as well as a related misdemeanor charge, and sentenced to a year in jail. While on bail pending appeal, he allowed his property to be poisoned again: He hired workers to slice hundreds of empty gas cylinders after being told not to, contaminating 2 million pounds of soil with asbestos and solvents. Because that action violated the probationary term Smith was still on for the original tire charge, a judge sentenced him to six months in jail two years ago. Smith never showed up.

''You have all these environmental schemes and laws, and they might work for a reasonable business, but they just don't work for someone who doesn't care," said Leanne Robbin, the Maine assistant attorney general who prosecuted Smith in 2003 for the state hazardous waste violations. At one point, cleanup workers had to get a proclamation from the governor to prevent Smith from blocking work crews by parking heavy machinery on roads or near his trailers. The town of Meddybemps has also prosecuted Smith for operating illegal junkyards.

Authorities are still searching for Smith. They get periodic reports of him across Maine, Canada -- and in Meddybemps. Residents, meanwhile, say they don't necessarily want Smith to serve jail time, but they want him to come back to clean up his mess.
''This used to be such a pretty town," said Joyce Brown, who lives near Smith's deserted home.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

07-25-2005, 06:55 AM
How about they chain him to one of those trailers containg hazardous waste. Maybe he'd get the point.

07-25-2005, 08:02 AM
Heh. Wait till some of his grandchildren are born 'unusual'. He probably won't care, but the closed mouthed town residents will start to reconsider the cost of their loyalty.

07-25-2005, 08:04 AM
Could be he's just a puddle of ooze on his own property by now...

07-25-2005, 08:09 AM
Yikes! I used to swim in that river downstream from there....Let's hope dilution did it's thing. :rolleyes:

07-25-2005, 08:11 AM
Originally posted by Fitz:
Yikes! I used to swim in that river downstream from there....Let's hope dilution did it's thing. :rolleyes: Do you still glow at night?

07-25-2005, 03:16 PM
Wasn't this the guy featured in one of the US television documentary programs 'Different Drummer'.

He walked around with a camera-crew and mumbling - 'People are too afraid of chemicals! - Look! there is nothing dangerous about this Cobalt (dipping his finger in and stirring).

Anyone remember the program?

Matt J.
07-25-2005, 03:44 PM
Ahh, yes... another "good ole boy" who knows better'n us young punks. I worked at a concrete lab on owned by a Harry and Alfred Smith. The land was similarly a junkyard for construction equipment and debris... immediately adjacent to a creek... Beaver Dam Creek perhaps? This Harry smith is a bit older, though... old enough to be the Mainer's father.

Just like my coworkers and all the old timers around here- they can take all the crabs, fish, oysters they want, and put back all the oils, fertilizer, and trash they choose... damned if "you" are going to tell them what it's doing "downstream." :rolleyes: ... no, :mad: !

07-25-2005, 08:34 PM
Ian, I hate to remind you of this but you live in Mass' so you and your brethren are considered pollution around here. I do wish we could train you to catapult your wallets over from Portsmouth. I've often thought of starting a business in Kittery fitting turn signals to the cars of people from Mass'. (Is it a state law not to have them down there?).

We all have some level of toxic waste in our backyards (I'm not yet qualified to say "dooryard") mine is confined to old bicycles and a rotting plywood boat. Hughman has a collection of Volvo's

There was a story today in the Portland Paper about a guy building a 100' plus schooner with scrap from Bath Iron Works



07-25-2005, 08:47 PM
Well, what happens when people like Mr. Smith get lazy or can make a buck and dump transformer oil and solvents on the ground, it migrates to the water table, and then all the rural Mainers and People from Away within a mile or two or 3 or 5 + who happen to rely on groundwater from drinking water wells, end up with more than they bargained for when they brush their teeth and have a glass of water.

Maybe it would be fine if it stayed on Mr. Smith's land and poisoned his family, but sh@t flows downhill don't ya know.

07-25-2005, 09:12 PM
their are things about the story that do not compute. why did the military mix hazardious wastes with other material that it sold?
when I was attending auctions there were no such mixxings. one lot I almost bought was 29 gallons of acetic ascid ( stop bath, a lifetime supply) would have been 5$

why did he cut up the gas culinders? why do they have asbestos in them?

in the story about the ship builder it is funny that because he incorperated as a non profet to atract donations suddenly the exact same project that was ok before is now not OK

just hipocritical like a law here that bans vehicles that are not registered but if they are registered then they are ok because one is "abandent" but it speaks not to condition but to the fact that goverment is always grubbing for money. it is to bad that city officals and code inforcement people are not regularly tared and feathered. it would restore the respect for the people that they should have but do not < G >

07-25-2005, 10:22 PM
Originally posted by Hwyl:
Hughman has a collection of Volvo's Hey, I sold one of em. (not possible to have a collection of one, is it?)

anyone want the last Volvo?

07-25-2005, 10:48 PM
From the boat article ....

the 110-ton boat - which he says will be lighter than a wooden schooner of the same size because its steel panels are thinner than wood planking. Duhhh. So many things you could say eh?


07-26-2005, 02:59 AM
originally posted by seafox
why did he cut up the gas culinders? why do they have asbestos in them?
Would they have been acetylene cylinders? I think they have some kind of packing inside.I can't think why anyone would cut them up.Perhaps they were suicidal?