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Published: St. Martin's Press - September 1st, 2020
Kerri Arsenault is a book editor at Orion Magazine, a contributing editor at The Literary Hub, and a mentor for PEN, America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. She serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board, writes for lithub.com, and teaches nonfiction in The Master of Arts Program in Writing and Oral Traditions at the Graduate Institute in Bethany, CT.
Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (also available on CD- Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (CD-Audio) is Kerri Arsenault’s debut work. It tells the story of Mexico, and other small towns in Maine that have a long relationship with a paper mill. It is a well-researched work, (research that was often difficult to conduct), that includes and is based on historical information, various academic, governmental, legal and scientific records. It describes the profoundly negative effects the mill had on the people who worked in it and on those who lived nearby, many of whom were working class Acadians.
It describes the environmental damage caused by toxic releases from the mill, such as when the burning of tires for fuel causes a release of dioxin, and the astronomical cancer rates likely caused by release of myriad toxins. But it also tells of the positive socio-economic effect the mill had on those same people. It asks the question “what are we willing to tolerate and whose lives are we willing to sacrifice for life itself?”
Perhaps industry has unpaid debts to the workers of Maine who, despite making their living in the mill, suffered along with their environment. Industry’s actions represent “a blight in the political, cultural, social, moral and aesthetic choices we’ve made.” The author considers “the Precautionary Principle” of the European Union, where industry must first prove that its actions will not have a harmful effect on people or the environment before it can proceed.
The book also deals with the effects of Nestlé’s involvement in Maine, as it is there to procure water. This has led to the commodification of water, as it did to Maine’s forests, allowing the benefit of resources to flow to the producers instead of to the people at large.
Ultimately, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains presents the reader with a microcosm. Everywhere, the same dilemma is repeated. People will endanger the environment and risk their health when that means making a living for themselves and their families—it takes only a moment of reflection to realize the truth of this.
Sincere thanks to Kerri for her responses to my questions.
32nd Avenue Books: You recognize that the mill enabled many to earn a living by working there. Do you feel that, in some sense, there was a balance between the positive and negative effects of its presence?
Kerri: This is the perfect question to understand the nut of my book but also an impossible question for me to answer. I tried hard not to view my examination of this same question in binary terms. To boil it down for those who haven’t read the book, the overwhelming negative aspect of working in the mill was that you may get cancer, perhaps caused by mill’s pollution, and the positive aspect of working there was that it was a good job with decent wages. So if we look at this in a binary way, the question is: were these deaths worth it? Such a black and white question only results in a yes or no. My book tries to examine this question for many points of view, and in the end, I’m not sure there is a clear answer, and in fact, I may have only just raised more questions (which I hope is true!) Also, I'd like readers to try and answer that question for themselves. And I’m guessing their answer will change depending on their own background. While the answer seems obvious, of course no job is worth someone’s life, then why do we continuously choose it? It’s a human conundrum with loads of ingredients informing that conflict.
32nd Avenue Books: Do you feel that Nestlé’s involvement in Maine was essentially one-sided, benefiting only Nestlé, or did Maine benefit as well?
Kerri: Nestle, like any big corporation, is largely concerned with their bottom line. Nestle has not been welcome in many communities...Why? Many opponents to Nestle see water as a right—as critical as air—not something to be sold or auctioned away. Some opponents just don’t want trucks rumbling through their towns or chewing up their roads. Environmental activists see Nestle’s activities as nearsighted or motivated by greed because the amounts they extract from the ground are beyond what’s ever been extracted before. Others have complained about Nestle's child labor abuses and trafficking, and yet others complained of their environmental violations and greenwashing. Nestle has been boycotted around the world for its marketing of baby milk formulas. They have also been sued for fraud.
In Osceola Township Michigan, the community worried the large scale water extraction would ruin the environment. In Northern California the same concern. Residents of a First Nations community near Toronto who lacked a dependable and safe water supply, watched helplessly as Nestle extracted millions of gallons of water from treaty lands. The story is repeated again and again and again. People in the towns of Hollis and Fryeburg, Maine have been trying to oust Nestle since the early 2000s. But as I write in Mill Town, they are as hard to boot out as a sloppy guest who drinks all your beer.
While I do see the need for bottled water in emergency situations, I don't see any benefit to such large scale water extraction.
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