Driving on Interstate 10 at night, you can see roaring flames from a plant flare pipe set against twinkling white lights -- but it's not just the view of Norco that's breathtaking. A sickening sweet smell has been known to drift from the direction of the refinery, leaving a bad odor to go with the visual spectacle.
Polish-born documentary filmmaker Slawomir Grunberg, with producer Jane Greenberg, may soon change the way we look at this small refinery town, with a population of 3,579. Grunberg spent almost two years in Norco, filming a racially charged environmental dispute. And by his own measure, the success of his one-hour film Fenceline: A Company Town Divided, which airs Tuesday, July 23 on PBS stations (including at 9 p.m. on WYES Channel 12) as part of the acclaimed P.O.V. series, might even change the way blacks and whites there talk to each other.
Even though the years-long dispute ended earlier this month with Shell's promise to buy any home on the four streets of the historically black Diamond community, Fenceline remains a compelling film. A careful portrayal of race, class and pollution in Louisiana, the documentary goes beyond the controversy itself and its own predictable billing as a "modern David and Goliath story."
The plot is familiar to locals who follow the state's environmental woes. In Norco, black and white residents are split over the health effects of air emissions from the Shell chemical plant. Backed by environmentalists from New Orleans, residents of the all-black Diamond community adjacent to the facility insist that Shell is responsible for high incidents of asthma in their children and cancers in adults. But Shell officials and white Norco residents say the plant is a good neighbor in a healthy community. Both sides cite scientific studies to back their claims.
Beverly Wright, an attorney for the Center for Environmental Justice, observes that there is a 35 percent asthma rate among the children in the Diamond community -- perhaps the most staggering statistic offered in the film. Physicians at Children's Hospital in New Orleans confirm high rates of asthma in the petro-chemical corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but do not name a culprit.
But Shell says its employees live longer than the average population. Retired plant worker Sal Digirolamo agrees: "We don't die too often here in Norco."
Grunberg, a graduate of the prestigious Polish Film School who emigrated to the United States in 1981, has produced more than 40 television documentaries, including an Emmy award-winning P.O.V. film on school prayer. He says the inspiration for his current film came eight years ago, when he was visiting New Orleans as a tourist.
"As a curious filmmaker, I like to take back roads," he says, speaking by cell phone from Austin, Texas. He says he was not prepared for a drive he took up River Road to visit the San Francisco plantation. "While I was there, I was shocked by the smell, the strong chemical odor. I was not aware I was surrounded by so many different chemical plants."
His interest mounted with news accounts of the so-called "Cancer Corridor" between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He heard personal anecdotes of poor health in the areas around the refineries, and he noted Louisiana environmentalists' successful rebuff of the proposed Shintech plant several years ago.
After researching Chemical Corridor, he and Greenberg decided to focus their filming on Norco. The resulting film, although clearly in the corner of black Diamond residents led by retired teacher Margie Richards, also gives a voice to fiercely loyal Shell workers and retirees, whose passion for the company seems to echo from a lost era of American history.
In fact, when asked to select a scene from the film that lingers in his mind, Grunberg recalls a segment filmed inside the house of a white family, whose members have worked at the plant for generations. An older man, a Shell retiree and apparent patriarch of the family, breaks down and weeps as he fondly recalls his 40 years with the company.
"It's unexpected," Grunberg says. "And it gives you this completely different perspective of what is happening there. I remember when I was filming it, I was very moved by this scene. It showed the complexity of the whole issue, an unexpected dimension."
Indeed, Fenceline puts Norco on the map in many unexpected ways. Politicians and state and federal environmental officials -- who are commonly sought out by news media reporting on environmental controversies -- are conspicuously absent from the film. Instead, Fenceline takes us into the homes of both black and white residents as they view TV news reports out of New Orleans, on the roiling controversy in their hometown. By turning its cameras on the local TV news media coverage, Fenceline shows how the news affects those closest to the issue.
Grunberg candidly admits that, as one might expect from the title of the PBS series, Fenceline represents his point of view of the Norco controversy. The film not only represents Norco as Grunberg sees it -- it also shows the town as he would like its estranged neighbors to see it. Among his decisions as director, Grunberg says, was to tone down Norco's racial tensions over Shell.
"Somehow, the issue became more racial, maybe more than it should be," he says. "Sometimes the fight was more aggressive, sometimes it was more gentle. It is part of the editing process, how you show this fight. You could show it much more racially motivated. ... But the reason why I'm making films in general is to get people closer together, to create a conversation and an understanding, rather than by frustrating [people].
"By selecting parts of the story where you can see that they talk to each other ... you let them see that they are much closer to each other than they thought they are."
There were blacks in Norco who said white racism was the primary source of their suffering. And there were whites who saw the Diamond buy-out movement as an invention to extort money from Shell. But those voices are not heard in Fenceline.
"Obviously those statements were there and I didn't use them on purpose," Grunberg says. "I didn't want to radicalize the situation. I want to create it so it leads to a solution -- as it happened."
Also missing from Fenceline are whites who objected to Shell as a neighbor, including one family that sold their house and moved out of town. Those folks either did not want to appear on camera or they were not representative of the attitudes of the general white community, Grunberg says. Overall, the white community of Norco is portrayed as very pro-Shell.
"For them, Shell is like a mother and father," Grunberg says. "To say that their mother and father didn't care or actually cheated on you, that is a terrible thing to hear."
The film also avoids demonizing the refinery, even indirectly. In the often bitter struggle over Norco, environmentalists employed hardball tactics, such as distributing a picture of a comfortable home with the caption: "Unlike the people of Diamond, the manager of the Shell refinery ... has chosen to live in clean air, about 25 miles away from the Diamond neighborhood and Shell facilities." Such information is not highlighted in Fenceline.
"I feel like the film was fair and balanced to Shell," says Grunberg. "We tried honestly to tell the story from both points of view. As much as we could, we tried to be objective. I, personally, wouldn't like to live in this neighborhood and obviously this point of view is also seen. I wouldn't feel comfortable living there because of the noise and I would constantly be suspicious about the health issue."
Fenceline does not note that St. Charles Parish offers new families one of the best public school systems in Louisiana, but the film does makes clear that many people like living in Norco -- including one young father, who notes the smell from the refinery and comments, "I could find a lot worse neighbors than a refinery."
"People are happy there," Grunberg says. "People feel secure. Their livelihood is the result of Shell's care. We show that Shell cares about their workers."
Grunberg says he never received permission to film inside the plant, but also admits: "We were not fighting for it like crazy. I don't feel like I missed a lot by not being there."
Television is a medium that favors action, emotion and intensity. In the struggle over Norco and against Big Oil, environmentalists clearly enjoy a monopoly of all three elements.
In Fenceline, Grunberg trains his lens on angry neighbors who blame Shell for the health problems of Diamond. The group forms Concerned Citizens of Norco (CCN), which enrolls technical support from environmentalists such as chemist Wilma Subra and the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which showed Norco residents how to capture air pollution samples in white pails.
Combined, the tireless activism of Diamond resident Margie Richard and the intellectual intensity of Wilma Subra seem to overpower Shell officials. These two women hardly seem to be cowed by a oil giant that, according to The Wall Street Journal, earns $1.5 million in profits an hour. In the film, Richard ultimately flies to an environmental summit at The Hague in Holland to confront Royal Dutch/Shell Oil with a white bucket of alleged air toxins from the conglomerate's plant in Norco.
Meanwhile, Subra, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award for her work on behalf of the environment, appears to intimidate a row of Shell men who turn up at a CCN meeting. She suggests an idea to settle their obvious disagreements over the danger posed by toxic emissions at the plant: take blood samples of newly arrived residents of Norco to establish a baseline for future research. Shell officials smile at the thought and politely argue such action would "alarm" new homeowners. Subra retorts that in the alternative, Shell should install air monitors along the fence line. "It's better to know now, than after ...."
Subra's command of statistics adds credibility to the Diamond buy-out movement. More importantly, she keeps the focus on the science of the issue and not the racial polemics. She expresses skepticism over Louisiana cancer data, saying health records do not reflect those who receive treatment out-of-state. After all, how many poor people can afford to leave the state for cancer treatment? And how many middle-class folks have health plans that allow trips to cancer facilities in Houston or Boston?
Following the buyout, Grunberg says he is optimistic that Shell's Good Neighbor Initiative will improve the company's environmental performance and community health and safety. But the story is far from over. One lingering question: What does the Shell buy-out in Norco portend for other unhappy neighbors at its refineries around the world?
The story of Chemical Corridor is also a continuing saga. Along with Texas and New Jersey, Louisiana has the highest concentration of industries amid residential populations. Following Norco, environmentalists are already gearing up for the next fenceline battle, such as the Orion Refinery (formerly Good Hope Refinery) at nearby New Sarpy.
"By telling the story of Norco, you basically tell the stories of hundreds of other communities," Grunberg says.