A Reckoning

October 27, 2021 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the October issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, pp. 1-3.

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2020. 314 pp. $27.99.

Over the past summer, the climate action group of my women’s community, the Grail, has been reading Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town. I’m sure my Grail sisters in the group have their own takes on the book, but I thought I would share mine with you today.

Arsenault’s book is a memoir/study of the dire health impacts on the people of Rumford, a town in west-central Maine, by a paper mill that employed a majority of them over decades, including Arsenault’s own father. She lays out her narrative through interviews with people in an around Rumford, as well as research into those who had been addressing the question for many years.

Among these was “Doc Martin,” a local MD who had long reported on the high levels of colon and prostate cancer in the area, linking it to the high amounts of dioxin, a toxic chemical compound produced in the chlorine bleaching of paper pulp. (Dioxin was also released by the burning of Agent Orange in Vietnam.). Martin’s attempts to raise the alarm were fruitless, and powerful people at all levels retaliated against him, ending his career. And then he himself died of cancer.

Arsenault also documents the history of many of the mill workers as “Acadians,” people expelled from Canada after the French and Indian War in 1755, and the various attempts at ethnic cleansing applied to them as “foreigners” over the years. Yet they were considered outstanding mill employees because of their hard work She links this earlier persecution of the Acadians to the social and environmental catastrophes in Rumford in recent years.

Another important part of the book is Arsenault’s analysis of why the community in and around Rumford chose to continue to work at the mill in the face of the exploding death rates: they needed the work in order to survive. One popular saying was that what you saw coming out of the smokestacks at the mill was money.

But another reason for locals being unaware of the truth was that the owners and the government, at all levels, covered up the mill’s harmful health impacts. Arsenault reports that the mill owners intentionally hired only older men to work in the bleaching room, the most toxic part of the mill, because they didn’t want to cover the health care costs for younger men. Older men retired and died; case closed. Yet their families never acknowledged the risks of working there. And the EPA permanently “postponed” its report on the connection between dioxins and cancer. 

Interestingly enough, during the 9/11 twentieth anniversary commemorations, a PBS documentary called “9/11’s Unsettled Dust” showed all the ways that New York, city, and state, as well as the Federal government, intentionally covered up the presence of massive amounts of dioxins, asbestos, and other toxins in the air around Ground Zero. Christine Todd Whitman, director of Nixon’s EPA, claimed multiple times that the air there was clean, despite irrefutable evidence that it wasn’t. Apparently, the authorities didn’t want such information to slow down the clean-up of lower Manhattan and, in particular, the reopening of Wall Street. People fought for two decades to get the government to cover responders’ health care and recompense the families of those who later died.

Throughout Mill Town, Arsenault weaves the story of her family’s involvement with the plant and her own father’s death from cancer as well as her failed attempts to find a clear linkage between his death and the toxins. She also draws a fascinating line between earlier exploitation by the mill owners and Nestlé’s recent attempts to exploit local water resources for bottled water. 

Reviewers have criticized Mill Town for Arsenault’s tendency to include so many sources and to keep stating how hard it is to draw absolute conclusions from all the material she uncovers in her research. One reviewer said that because of this, Arsenault isn’t a very good journalist. But she isn’t a journalist. Her graduate degree is in creative writing. Maybe splendidly written narratives also have something to contribute to the conversation about environmental destruction?

Besides my interest in good writing, I was drawn to Mill Town for another reason. In recent years I have done a fair amount of teaching, writing, and protesting about “environmental justice”—that is, opposing environmental racism. 

But I wonder sometimes about environmental classism. Which was clearly what was going on in Rumford. I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, now considered one of the Ground Zeroes of environmental racism. Some of my earliest memories, as a child, however, are of driving past the Sun Oil refineries around Chester when it was still majority white, on the way to visit relatives in Chester, and in South Philadelphia, where there were many refineries as well.

In recent years, many members on my mother’s side of the family—myself included–have contracted serious abdominal cancers. Most of them died. in recent years we have learned that the cancers were a result of a genetic defect, Lynch Family Syndrome. There’s no reason to think that there’s any connection between this genetic defect and all that smoke constantly pouring out of the oil refineries, right? Just like the people in Rumford had no reason to see a connection between the dioxin pouring out of the mill, and the responders after 9/11 had no reason to the think the dioxins in the air there had any connection to their later COPD and cancers?


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  1. So powerful, thank you. My brother died after being exposed to Agent Orange during his two years in Vietnam. He was 55 – died the day before his 56th birthday- some 40 years after his service. His wife was trying to get coverage for her 16 year old daughter and my other brother, who had served in the Navy, told her anywhere in Vietnam was covered, she didn’t need to know what city or area.
    Imagine how many of the people of Vietnam have the same cancers the service women and men got. Take care, Margaret


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