Cancer Valley

Posted on September 1, 2020

by Kerri Arsenault

Kerri Arsenault grew up in the rural working class town of Mexico, Maine. For over 100 years the community orbited around a paper mill that employed three generations of Arsenault’s family. The mill, while providing livelihoods for nearly everyone, also contributed to the destruction of the environment and the decline of the town’s economic and physical health, earning the area the nickname “Cancer Valley.” Mill Town is an American story, a human predicament, and a moral wake-up call that asks: what are we willing to tolerate and whose lives are we willing to sacrifice for our own survival? Read on for an excerpt.

Water Under the Bridge

In the mid-1800s, as small pioneering hamlets up and down the Androscoggin grew into viable municipalities, the populace began furnishing the river with a miasmic and untreated deluge of raw sewage. Log jams, caused by the fury of the river’s spring thaws, dispensed resinous brown sap and bark in the calamity of the push. With all those logs came sawmills, and with sawmills, sawdust slurrying the water and killing off Atlantic salmon, the last of which were seen suffocating downriver in 1816. By the start of the twentieth century, when my great-grandparents arrived in Maine, factories dominated the banks of the Androscoggin and generated tons of waste, adding to the evolving river cocktail. Upstream and downstream, manufacturers tossed in their dyes, fibers, and toxic substances. Into the sky went their pollution and particles. Hydroelectric dams impounded natural flow. Plumes from effluent pipes greased the river’s waters.

Industry, along with everyone else, believed in the adage the solution to pollution is dilution, so for a little while, rivers and skies were able to recuperate without aid. Mother Nature, however, could do nothing to remedy what caused the legendary twenty-foot walls of urine-colored toxic foam emerging from the canals forty miles downstream or cure the asphyxiating fallout from the twenty-one dams that tempered the water and powered the factories. Years and years of flotsam and effluent choked what fish remained. Aeration dimmed. Water temperature rose. And in 1941 when manufacturing’s concomitant pollution reached a stinky zenith, the smell emanating from the river was so appalling people fled town or shuttered themselves in. Coins in men’s pockets and silver sets tarnished overnight. Stores closed. House and car paint peeled like burnt skin. Residents vomited. Laundry hung on clotheslines blackened with ash. Citizens demanded action.

As a gesture of progress, the Maine legislature created the Sanitary Water Board. Poorly funded from the start, the board wielded no real power except to hire an engineering firm to perform an impact study on the river. The report showed 96 percent of the pollution derived from industrial wastes, with 92 percent from pulp and paper mills; more specifically, it originated from sulfite liquor, a by-product of the wood-pulping process of the time. “Few streams in the United States of comparable size showed evidence of such extreme pollution,” the report announced. While the population of Rumford hovered around ten thousand, the industrial discharge equaled what more than two million people would expect to produce.

The report recommended mills wait to discharge the sulfite liquor and other wastes when water flow and temperature could dilute them better. When International Paper of Jay, Maine, the Brown Company in New Hampshire, and the Oxford Paper Company in Rumford, Maine—who were responsible for the mess—ignored these recommendations, Maine attorney general Frank Cowan, in an unusual environmental action for 1942, filed a lawsuit against them. The case resulted in an order by the Maine Supreme Court demanding the mills reduce their discharges at once. Editors at the Lewiston Daily Sun wrote in response: “Only the foolhardy would desire clean water at the expense of slashed payrolls, lost industry and a ghost town.”

Photo: Kerri Arsenault

In response to the order, in 1947 the three mills built a waste holding pond— the lagoon— downriver in Jay, Maine, to contain the four hundred tons of sulfi te liquor that was tossed into the river every week, but the pond’s clay lining leaked. Upstream, the Brown Company built an additional holding pond. It also leaked. Three years passed with no further action until the three paper companies agreed to an abatement plan and Dr. Walter A. Lawrance, then head of the chemistry department at Bates College, was brought on as rivermaster to help manage the noxious mess. From 1947 to 1978, Lawrance tried.

Herb Knight, one of Lawrance’s students at Bates, sampled river water at various locations to understand the pollution load generated by the mill. Knight remembers “an ugly brown sticky substance” formed on the surface of the twenty-two-million-gallon lagoon. “When the temperature dropped, [the mill] would dribble the stuff in the river rather than just dump it all at once.” The river already contained things called “cellulosic fines,” he says, another by-product of the pulping process. The sulfite liquor combined with these cellulosic fines to produce a “grayish, foul material we called shit cakes,” Knight says with an embarrassed laugh. “There must have been about one hundred acres of it floating in the river.”

Lawrance and his assistants kept meticulous reports of water samples to monitor the dissolved oxygen content in the water. They recorded extensive information about the weather, wind velocity and direction, humidity levels, river color, water surface conditions, and air temperature. In his descriptions of river odor intensity and type, he categorized them as “earthy,” “musty,” “rotten eggs” or “pig-pen,” which he clarified as: “The name is quite descriptive of the odor, which is very similar to the somewhat sweetish but unpleasant odor usually present in pig-pens. . . Pig-pen appears to vary in different locations . . . in the Lewiston area [downstream from Rumford and Mexico] . . . it possesses a more ‘cadaverous’ flavor.”

Lawrance added sodium nitrate to the river—about seven thousand tons of it between 1948 and 1960—to kill bacteria, raise the dissolved oxygen level, and blunt the stench. He also tried, in 1969, to re-create the river’s natural aeration by installing “bubblers” in Gulf Island Pond, the water area, but it was only a temporary, mechanical fix. Some people lauded Lawrance’s efforts. Some, however, remained suspicious; they thought “perfuming” the water with the sodium nitrate didn’t solve the underlying problem, and scientists feared the unnatural nutrient load only added more pollution. Both were right. The river was being paralyzedby both action and inaction. And the bubblers were a makeshift solution, unsustainable for a river of its size. Lawrance too was stuck in a no-man’s-land between economic and environmental prosperity and his own dubious authority to do anything about it except with the inefficient technology he had at hand.

Decades later, the smell became less offensive and less frequent, and the flat, floating, encyclopedia-sized pieces of shit cakes dwindled. “The pollution was exaggerated,” Knight says. “The media didn’t balance between reality and conjecture. Now there’s a boat launch where sludge used to float. It was a great leap forward.”

© Copyright Kerri Arsenault 2020

Credit: Erik Madigan Heck

Kerri Arsenault is the Book Review Editor at Orion magazine, and Contributing Editor at Lithub. Arsenault received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and studied in Malmö University’s Communication for Development master’s programme. Her writing has appeared in Freeman’sLithub,, and The Minneapolis Star Tribune, among other publications. She lives in New England. Mill Town is her first book.

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