By Maddie Hellwig
The second film in the Athena Cinema’s Fall Sustainability Series was “Mossville,” a haunting documentary about the fenceline community of Mossville, Louisiana. It follows two Mossville residents, Stacey Ryan and Erica Jackson, who struggle to fight for their community against big oil companies like Sasol.
Mossville first served as a safe haven for freed slaves to escape racial violence after the end of slavery. It was a rural area where residents grew crops and raised cattle, until the early 1900s when lumbering, and later sugar refinement, became the major industry; however, in the 1940s and 50s, petrochemical and industrial plants began setting up operations around the town. The community is now surrounded by 14 industrial plants.
These industrial plants have had multiple negative impacts on Mossville. In 1993, an estimated 19 million to 47 million pounds of ethylene dichloride leaked from a pipeline into Calcasieu estuary, although the company responsible, Condea Vista, estimated that only 1.6 million pounds had leaked from the pipeline. Exposure to ethylene dichloride can cause a vast amount of harmful health issues, like heart, liver and nervous system problems. Mossville residents report many cases of liver damage and losing many family members to various cancers as a result of the spill.
Condea Vista eventually was purchased by petrochemical giant, Sasol. This company is based in South Africa, and it began setting up operations in Mossville in 2000 when it bought Condea Vista. In 2013, Sasol began its voluntary buyout program, which covered 883 lots on the south side of the town’s main road, Old Spanish Trail. The buyout offer included $100,000 and 60% of the appraised value for property owners that lived in their homes, $75,000 for rental property owners, and $5,000 for those who owned unimproved property.
Stacey Ryan and Erica Jackson were both residents that qualify for the buyout program. Despite this, neither had sold their property and moved out of the area until the end of the film. Since Mossville is such a small town, both Ryan and Jackson had deep family roots in the area and were reluctant to leave the only home they’ve ever known.
During the filming of the documentary, Jackson and her husband, Van Jackson, were in search of a new home farther away from the plant. Jackson stated that she no longer felt that she had a choice in the buyout; she and her family could either stay in Mossville and be miserable or leave the town with the buyout offer.
Jackson and her husband ultimately decided to take the offer, although she said she has no idea where she is going, and that house prices are increasingly becoming more unaffordable, even with the money from the buyout offer. Jackson said she hoped their new home would be free from industrial plants so that her family would have good water and would not suffer as many health problems.
Ryan, on the other hand, refused to accept Sasol’s offer and eventually was the only resident living in his neighborhood. His mobile home soon became surrounded by empty, barren land intended to be occupied by Sasol’s plant.
When Sasol first began building in the area, Ryan’s whole family faced a myriad of health problems due to the pollution from the petrochemical company. His mother had congestive heart problems and cancer, his father had stage IV cancer and his sister developed endometriosis. Ryan himself developed a chemical rash on his neck, experiences urine problems, neuropathy in his feet and suffers from boils and infections.
Ryan’s parents filmed a video testimonial to show the negative effects that Sasol’s operations had on them and their family. Ryan’s father tragically died due to cancer shortly after the filming of the testimonial. Ryan said he feels that companies like Sasol are “just waiting for us to die so they can get the land dirt cheap.”
Sasol has done more damage than just hurt Ryan’s health. The company told him that he could not access water, electricity or a sewage system because of the heavy industry that surrounded his property. Therefore, Ryan had to build his own sewage, water and electrical systems. In an effort to save gas, he often forgoes the use of his stove and heats up cans of food with a blowtorch to eat.
There are instances of residents leaving Mossville and still being surrounded by oil and chemical plants. Jackson’s daughter, Destiny, moved to nearby town Maplewood, but the Axiall Oil company is expanding there.
This is not the first time Sasol has completely taken over a town either. In Sasolburg, South Africa, where the company was founded, people were forced off their land so that the company could build its plant. Many of Sasolburg’s black residents were settled between the oil and chemical refineries and deprived access to land, which they see as a sign of dignity. The residents of Sasolburg have faced similar health problems to those living in Mossville since Sasol first began their operation there.
The pollution where Ryan lives is so horrible that his son lives across the river with his mother because it is not safe for him to stay with his father. Ryan said that he wants to live to see his son graduate, but his body is so badly deteriorated from the exposure to the pollution that he might not even live that long.
In the end, Ryan took Sasol’s buyout offer so he could send his son to a healthier, safer town in Texas. He intended on moving there with his son as well; however, since he took the offer, he has been in the hospital a dozen times for treatment for the many health issues he faces from the pollution. He has spent that majority of the buyout settlement on medical bills.
This film showcases the violent environmental racism, or how people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards, that affects fenceline communities like Mossville everyday. It demonstrates how big companies like Sasol treat communities like Mossville and their residents like “‘others that can live in pollution,” according to Ryan. Ryan and other Mossville residents want the world to know about Mossville.
“Once, we were a community founded by freed slaves that existed in peace and happiness,” Ryan said. “We existed.”
I think “Mossville” was a good, informative film about what it’s like to live in a fenceline community. It told the story of Mossville in a real, emotional way that made it easy to relate to its residents and easy to understand the issues that come with living amongst industrial plants. I recommend this film to anyone who is interested in learning more about environmental racism and the reality of living in fenceline communities.