One woman reacts with fear when the alarm at the local Shell chemical plant goes off, and the smokestacks “flare” to burn off escaping chemical gasses. Another woman thinks the flares are beautiful, and represent both the safety and economic benefit of the plant. The first woman is African-American, lives next door to the plant, and has never worked there. The second woman is white, works at the plant and is also related to a long line of plant employees.
The social divisions in Norco, Louisiana, a company town in the middle of the Mississippi River’s notorious “cancer alley,” are as plain as that. But as the new film, Fenceline: A Company Town Divided, shows, plain is never simple when race, economics and toxic pollution mix in the American heartland.
Fenceline: A Company Town Divided, a film by Slawomir Grünberg with Jane Greenberg, airs Tuesday, July 23, 10 p.m. ET (check for rebroadcasts) on PBS. Fenceline is the fifth program in the 15th anniversary season of POV, television’s first and longest-running series of independent, non-fiction films. POV continues on Tuesdays through August 27, with additional Fall and Winter specials.
Beginning in the 1920s, the length of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where Norco is located, became the site of a vast petro-chemical industry. For the people of the Delta, that industry has been both an economic engine and an environmental and health catastrophe. But to listen to the people of Norco, which derives its name from the New Orleans Refining Company, you might think they inhabited two different towns with completely different histories.
Fenceline lets both communities speak their minds — to startling effect. People in the black community, like Margie Richard, the retired teacher who cringes whenever the flares occur, know dozens of people with asthma, including her own grandson. People in the white community, like Sal Digirolamo, a retired plant worker, can’t think of a single person who does. Richard remembers when Shell bought part of their land, the site of the former Diamond Plantation, and built petro-chemical plants on the fenceline of the African-American community. Digirolamo, like many other white people in town, has a lifetime’s worth of warm memories of company picnics and employee citations.
Fenceline follows the struggle of Richard and the all-black Diamond Community to make the Shell Chemical Company acknowledge the plant’s impact on health in their neighborhood, and to offer a fair relocation plan for the whole community. Shell’s public relations firm manages the public awareness campaign carefully while refusing to admit any effect on health by plant operations. Eventually explaining that they want to move the “fenceline” to create a “green belt”, once again displacing Norco’s African-American neighborhood, Shell offers to buy off half the community. Richard, in the meantime, travels to the Climate Justice Summit in The Hague, Holland where she confronts the Royal Dutch/ Shell Oil Company management.
Norco’s majority white population reacts with varying degrees of dismay and resentment over the way Shell’s opponents portray the company and the town. Yet they also respond with grudging sympathy for Norco’s black community. The two things they all share are being native or long-term residents of Norco, and having strong feelings about social equity and quality of life in the town.
Fenceline reveals the deeper social reality in the struggle between industry and environment in the Mississippi Delta. It is persuasive evidence that in a racially and economically divided America, we don’t all breathe the same air.