“One of our country’s largest private companies is proudly built on American values and skills.” (from a promotional video for Koch Industries)
Crossett, Arkansas bills itself as the “Forestry Capital of the South”. It’s a small community, but it is home to a Georgia-Pacific paper mill. Georgia-Pacific is owned by Koch Industries (which is owned by Charles and David Koch, among the wealthiest men in America). Many of the people in Crossett either work at Georgia-Pacific or have relatives who work there. The economy of the plant pretty much dominates the town. But the plant is also a major polluter and perhaps a serious health problem for those in Crossett. Company Town is an exposé of not only the company’s practices, but also of the impotence of the government agencies we rely on to prevent such problems.
The film alternates between looking at the company and the way the filmmakers say the company skirts or ignores the law, and being a personal story of those who live in Crossett and are trying to change things. Central to the personal side of the story is Pastor David Bouie. As he walks down the street he lives on, he points out all the houses where someone had cancer. As he puts it, it is “door- to-door cancer”. Eleven of the sixteen houses have had at least one person with cancer. Pastor Bouie is the local leader who is speaking out and trying to bring some sense of justice to the situation. But it is a very hard battle.
But it isn’t just Georgia-Pacific that is the target of this documentary. The film also looks at the Environmental Protection Agency and its failure or inability to enforce environmental laws. (It is noted in the film that the Koch brothers have been vocal about wanting the EPA eliminated—and they have been very politically active.) There is a certain amount of buck passing between EPA and the state agency (the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality) over who is actually responsible for enforcement. Although people from EPA and ADEQ come to listen, it seems there is little they are actually able (or willing) to do. Pastor Bouie and others are diligent about keeping Crossett and its problems on the agencies agendas, but make very little progress.
I was intrigued by the line from the Koch Industries promo that was excerpted in the film. The claim to be “built on American values” sounds wonderful, but what values do we see the company exhibiting in this film? This is a plant that creates 45 million gallons of waste water per day. The open, unlined trenches and ponds that hold this water do not protect the people of Crossett from various harmful chemicals. When we hear some who took part in illegal dumping, we know that there may well be more issues to deal with for many years. And in reality, although Koch Industries is the focus of this story, they are not alone in such practices. As one of the whistleblowers in the film puts it, “What G-P is about is making the almighty dollar at whatever expense. Indeed, that may be the basic American value of this and many other companies.