Water Contamination from Paper Mills at Penobscot Reservation, USA


The Penobscot Indian Nation, located near Old Town, Maine, has inhabited the Penobscot River for thousands of years. The river has provided them with their basic needs like food, water, recreation, and a sense of spiritual well being. For the last century and a half, pollution has accumulated in the river from a number of companies dumping their production waste into the river, most notably pulp and paper companies and wastewater treatment plants. Beginning in 1987, the state of Maine recommended that the Penobscot tribe limit their fish consumption. Today, it is recommended that tribal members eat no more than one serving of fish from the river per week or per month (depending on the species of fish, and where in the river it was caught).

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Basic Data
NameWater Contamination from Paper Mills at Penobscot Reservation, USA
CountryUnited States of America
SitePenobscot Reservation
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Manufacturing activities
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Specific CommoditiesCellulose
Industrial waste
Domestic municipal waste
Biological resources
Project Details and Actors
Project Details18 million gallons of wastewater flow out of the Bangor Treatment Plant everyday
Project Area (in hectares)50
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population600-2,000
Start Date1960
Company Names or State EnterprisesGreat Northern Paper from United States of America
Georgia Pacific Group from United States of America
Champion International Corp from United States of America
Lincoln Pulp & Paper Company
Relevant government actorsMain Department of Environmental Protection, USEPA
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersPenobscot Nation, Penobscot River Restoration project, American Rivers
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Fisher people
Forms of MobilizationLawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
OtherLiver, barin, nerve, and skin disorders
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.Bringing suit against EPA local Indian communities claimed that, as a sovereign nation, they should have legal grounds to regulate water quality. The Court held that water quality was not an 'internal tribal affair,' and therefore, under the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, the state of Maine retains the authority to regulate it. In the spring of 2007, the EPA announced that it would be conducting a study of the Penobscot River ecosystem. The study has been completed by the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center Project and should be available soon.
Sources and Materials

Clean Water Act 1972
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(Federal) Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980
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Mott, Lawrie. "The disproportionate impact of environmental health threats on children of color." Environmental health perspectives 103.Suppl 6 (1995): 33.

Rodgers Jr, William H. "Treatment as Tribe, Treatment as State: The Penobscot Indians and the Clean Water Act." Ala. L. Rev. 55 (2003): 815.

Frederick, Katherine L. "Resurrecting a River and its People: An Environmental History of the Penobscot River and the Contemporary Efforts to Facilitate Environmental Change on the Penobscot River." (2006).


Penobscot River Stories - Modern tales from the Penobscot River watershed
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COLBY - Penobscot Subsistence Fisheries
[click to view]

Bisulca, Paul J. "Indian Sustenance Fishing Rights in the Penobscot River Must Continue." Bangor Daily News RSS. BDN Maine, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 May 2014. .
[click to view]

Region 1: EPA New England. Penobscot Indian Nation
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Contamination in fish weakens cultural link for Maine tribe. Catching and eating fish is a tradition no longer passed on to many Penobscot children.

By Dieter Bradbury ©1997 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
[click to view]

USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center Project: Penobscot River Maine RARE EPA Study
[click to view]

Media Links

Youtube Video, Uploaded on May 11, 201. Butch Phillips: Restoring the Penobscot River. Butch Phillips, tribal elder of the Penobscot Indian Nation, describes his peoples historic connection with the river that shares their name and reflects on the promise of the Penobscot River Restoration Project. The Penobscot River Restoration Trust is a partnership that includes the Penobscot Indian Nation, The Nature Conservancy and several other conservation groups. The goal is to restore more than 1,000 miles of habitat for species like Atlantic salmon and river herring while maintaining hydropower in the watershed. Source: The Nature Conservancy
[click to view]

Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan
Meta Information
ContributorAlejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/07/2015