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Penobscot Indian Nation: The People And Their River
The following is an interview by Mary Bowannie (Tribal Vision Newsletter)
with John Banks, Director of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Indian
Nation about dioxin and its impact on the Penobscot River and the People.
Reproduced with the permission of John Banks (for the Penobscot) and Mary
Bowannie (for the National Tribal Environmental Council):
Banks: It's necessary to reduce dioxin in the environment to ensure that
people do not start to see health effects. Our people are already feeling
the effects of dioxin in the River. Tribal members live on the Penobscot
River and have traditionally consumed large amounts of fish from the River.
The fish have been accumulating large levels of dioxin in their bodies. We
now have very high cancer rates in our community.
Tribal Vision: What forms of cancer are present among the People?
Banks: All types. In one cancer study, it compared us to other Native
American groups. They used one Native American group in New Mexico and
another Native American group in Alaska and our cancer rates were higher than
those two groups.
Tribal Vision: How are People responding to the health crisis?
Banks: They're mad and very worried. They're mad that this discharge has
been going on for a long time. They see the cancer rates on the reservation
increasing all the time. They see the fish advisories posted along the banks
of the rivers, warning them not to eat the fish. They're fearful of the
health and cultural impacts of this dangerous carcinogen. The dioxins have
probably been accumulating in the sediments in the River for some time.
Tribal Vision: What do you think is going to solve the health problems?
Banks: Tougher rules. Tougher rules and regulations that further limit both
water and air discharges of dioxin, along with positive incentives for
whatever industries emit dioxin. Positive incentives to get them to go
beyond whatever regulator mechanisms are in place, to compel them to further
reduce and eliminate all dioxin discharges.
Tribal Vision: In what other ways has dioxin impacted the Penobscot?
Banks: Culturally, the impacts have been very significant. Tribal members
have curtailed traditional fishing activity. They've stopped using the river
to the extent that we did for the past thousands of years. Traditional
cultural activities that involved using the natural resources of the river
are not being handed down from generation to generation. It's having a major
negative impact on the Tribes cultural integrity.
Tribal Vision: So how is the Tribe dealing with the loss of cultural
Banks: Through education. We're attempting to educate everybody about the
impacts of these pollutants, not only on us, but on the environment and
society in general. The impacts from a contaminated river go well beyond the
members of the Penobscot Nation.
Tribal Vision: How do you see getting rid of dioxin?
Banks: First, I'd like to see all kraft mills adopt a process that doesn't
produce dixoin. Rather than trying to treat the effluent, I would like to
see paper mills employ a process that guarantees that these contaminants
aren't produced in the paper making process. That technology exists. There
are many paper mills in Europe that have adopted this process that doesn't
produce dioxins. The process that involves more of an oxygen based bleaching
system, such as oxygen delignification, this process puts the mills on a path
toward closing the effluent loop from the bleach plant.
Produced for this List by Native Ecology Initiative For the last half of the
interview, see Part II