River Valley, Maine

River Valley Cancer Yearbook

Kerri Arsenault


In order to document the health—past and present—of the River Valley, Kerri Arsenault created the Cancer Yearbook, an online photographic record that mimics a high school yearbook, however, this yearbook contains details of another kind: testimony from people who have lived or live currently in the River Valley and suspect (or know for certain) their diseases are or were related to the mill’s toxic releases. While studies have been done regarding the high cancer rates in the River Valley, nothing has been proven to date. In 2021, Arsenault will incorporate many more River Valley stories, and begin to include similar stories from the entire state of Maine. This project—like cancer itself—has no foreseeable end.

This yearbook creates visual evidence—on a more human rather than scientific scale—that shows the connection between industry and illness. It puts faces to data, gives people a place to tell their stories, be seen, and see others who have suspected similar things. Sharing stories publicly is the key to this project, because if there are enough faces and stories populating this yearbook, the facts will be hard to ignore as they have been in the past. —Maine’s River Valley report editors

The River Valley Cancer Yearbook. Image courtesy of Kerri Arsenault.

For almost a century, River Valley residents complained about the mill’s pollution and wondered if it caused the high rates of cancer and disease in our towns. In 1991, our community’s cancer rates were so high that a Boston TV station nicknamed it “Cancer Valley.” Over the years, however, studies found nothing conclusive to connect the mill’s pollution to disease. Citizen fact-finding ended in frustration. Voices of protest were shut down. Regulations seemed to value the bottom line not lifelines. Governmental bodies said they did all they could do. Yet residents continued to get sick and die in curious clusters, sometimes in generations of families, leaving people to live under an umbrella of uncertainty because the answers to our questions and concerns were nowhere to be found.

The unclear prognosis for our community and its residents has been intensified by opaque legislation to control toxics; the collaborative and sometimes cozy relationship between lobbyists, environmental agencies, politicians, and industry; the ambiguous nature of the relationship between pollutants and disease; and the conundrum residents face working for an industry that could be killing them.

No heroes come to most of these communities: no Dark Waters or A Civil Action lawyers, no Erin Brockovich to stand up to obvious wrongs or fix what needs to be fixed. And slow-moving and invisible toxic disasters like these rarely stay in the news for long. The media is quickly onto other eye-catching themes. We humans are mesmerized by things that glitter, magpies that we are. We train our eyes on spectacled stories: tell-all books about famous people, hurricanes or wildfires, white girls gone missing, people mowed down by lunatics with guns. We can’t tear our eyes away from these tail-spinning high and lows.

Meantime, people and landscapes drift in the peripheries where it’s hard to see or where we don’t bother to look, in isolated places of no fiscal or cultural concern. Such tragedies only flicker in the headlines, which makes their consequences hard to pin down and difficult to voice. And voice is the very thing absented, invisible like the people suffering. This silence presages the slow corruption of all bodies—of water, of systems, of the human form.

Our story is ordinary. And it’s the same story all over the world where disenfranchised people live: in Louisiana near plastics and petrochemical companies; near mountaintop mines in Virginia; close to ash pits in Kingston, Tennessee; aside oil spills in Angola; near oil-production facilities and industrial projects in the Niger Delta. These communities are always more susceptible to environmental and social injustices than the more fortunate.

Industry has always remanded garbage and toxic wastes to the margins, to silent locations of despair where they end up in residents’ DNA, damaging their bodies and wreaking unknown havoc on their mental, social, and emotional health. What will the long-term psychological diagnoses be for them, for their descendants, for the future we cannot see? Most of us never stop to think that there’s someone else carrying the burden for us, someone we probably don’t know. With this yearbook, you will know who is doing that work. You will know who acts as a recycling unit for the things we throw away.

It’s a bit of an illusion, this poison-redistribution network, because what we expel eventually returns—but often in more diabolical forms. Mass cannot be destroyed, only dispersed or rearranged. The landscape has been so altered by us that it’s reciprocating the abuse. We will all be living in a cathedral of trauma if we don’t speak out, change our demands, vote for leaders who choose life over death.

View the River Valley Cancer Yearbook


The above text has been adapted from Arsenault’s book, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Please reference for additional discussion and sources.


Kerri Arsenault

grew up in the River Valley, and she is a book critic, the book review editor for Orion Magazine, contributing editor at The Literary Hub, and author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. She received her MFA from The New School and studied in the graduate program in Communication for Development at Sweden’s Malmö University. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Air Mail, Freeman’s, the Paris Review Daily, and The New York Review of Books.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.