Boothbay Harbor Sewer District honored John ‘‘Jolly’’ Arsenault May 20 for his service to the community by dedicating the water reclamation facility on Sea Street in his name. Arsenault, a lifelong resident of Boothbay Harbor, served the district for over half a century and was one of its founding members. He died in 2022 at 92.
Sewer District Superintendent Chris Higgins unveiled the new sign and a plaque dedicated to Arsenault to a small gathering of family.
"He would have been honored, he would be appreciative, but I don't think he would ever expect that they were going to do this,” said Arsenault's widow, Laura. “He did it out of his own heart. This is what he wanted, and he was very glad to get (sewer treatment) settled in the region. It was needed so much."
Higgins said he has a hard time imagining the environmental conditions around when Arsenault was born in 1929; Boothbay Harbor was in a boom period, with factories and fish processing facilities dumping into the water as well as steamships regularly coming from Boston.
According to Higgins, water treatment in Boothbay Harbor did not start until the late 1950s when Arsenault, Norman Hodgdon and John Tourtillotte set out to build the infrastructure to clean the water resources. The men were ahead of their time, Higgins said, and he noted the Clean Water Act was not passed until 1972.
"Who thinks about wastewater treatment in the late ’50s? Nobody did,” he said. “Everything went into the harbor … the basis of this town is that harbor. That’s why it’s important. Those guys saw the benefit of this then."
In 1959, legislation was passed to create the BHSD. Construction on the original facilities began in 1960 and they were operational by 1964.
"I remember when it started, I thought 'Boy that's a big project,'” said Laura Arsenault. “But (John) always stood behind it and worked for it. All the men he worked with were very good."
The environmental impact was immediate, according to Higgins. He said the original primary plant, with five pump stations in the system, removed up to 25% of pollutants; today, with 20 pump stations in the system, that number is around 95% and higher.
Arsenault, a professional plumber, was on the Sewer District Board of Trustees for 51 years. According to Higgins, Arsenault worked behind the scenes throughout its history and was a stabilizing factor, gathering community support, helping secure funding and recruiting fellow trustees.
“He knew that this region would not last if there were polluted waters out there and they needed to get cleaned up,” Higgins said. "He knew what had to be done, he went about and did it. But he didn't put himself front and center and pat himself on the back for doing it.”
Higgins said Arsenault truly cared about the work to stay with it so long and saw it as part of his civic duty. During the dedication, Higgins recalled something Arsenault told him when he came to work with the district in the mid 1990s:
“Just remember one thing: We can’t have a robust economy, we can’t have robust tourism, without protecting the environment ...”