Fenceline: A Company Town Divided

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“Fenceline” follows the story of Margie Richard, who claims that her African American community is suffering adverse health effects, due to the chemical emissions of a neighboring plant owned by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company. The town of Norco, Louisiana which derives its name from the New Orleans Refining Company, is divided between those who consider Shell a fair neighbor that carefully monitors it’s chemical emissions and the all-black Diamond Community. As a result of Shell’s industrial expansion, the size of the Diamond Community has been reduced to four streets that extend from the plant’s fence line. Chemicals that have been identified in the air in the Norco community include Benzene, which is known to cause cancer in humans; Epychlor Hydron, which is a suspected human cancer causing agent and has been linked to testicular dysfunction; and Toluene, Ethyl Benzene and Sulfur Compounds, which are all linked to birth defects. Out of concern that these chemicals are aversely affecting their health, the Diamond Community has been asking Shell to relocate them.

The rest of Norco is a mainly white community that owes its existence to the petrochemical industry. Like many residents, Vicky Reneau has lived in Norco her entire life and is fiercely proud of this company town. Her father, Kirby, spent 40 years working for Shell and the family grew up enjoying the benefits associated with being part of the “Shell family” – free access to the company swimming pool, bowling alley, theater, and golf course. Along with the country club lifestyle, Shell employees enjoy some of the highest wages in the area. Vicky points out that in addition to generous employee benefits which support the local economy, the company makes many contributions to the community. Shell sponsors a Christmas present give away, offers Thanksgiving turkeys to the needy, and sends employees into local schools to teach students about the importance of industry. The Reneau family believes industry has brought nothing but benefits to Norco, and that those who want to be relocated are opportunists looking for a handout. To allegations by the Diamond Community that chemical emissions by Shell are responsible for health problems, Vickie responds that Shell carefully monitors it’s emissions and that any problems Diamond residents have are the result of an unhealthy lifestyle.

At the request of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Shell was obliged to inform the community about the emission levels of the chemicals they release. According to Shell’s chemical monitors, the plant is not exceeding federal regulations on emission levels. With the help of an independent chemist, Wilma Subra, the Diamond Community also began collecting air samples using an EPA approved bucket. The so-called “bucket brigade” recorded that, on certain occasions, the Shell plant was releasing chemicals in quantities that did exceed federal limits.

“Fenceline: A Company Town Divided” hopes to offer the viewer an appreciation of the delicate balance between industry and environmental rights, without promoting a particular viewpoint. The questions this film addresses offer the viewer even-handed insight into a topic of national interest. With interviews of people from a wide spectrum of disciplines such as: industry experts, industry workers, environmentalists and local community members, this documentary juxtaposes misconceptions about the role of industry in polluting the environment against scientific facts. By airing this program on national television and providing outreach initiatives to extend the value of the documentary in classrooms and the public sphere, we hope to bridge the gap between environmentalists and industry advocates.

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