“Everybody in my neighborhood that I know of in the last 40 years died from cancer,” says a resident of Crossett, Arkansas, at a public hearing captured in Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian’s blood-boiling doc Company Town. The man continues: “I’m the only one left on that street.” That street cuts close to Crossett’s Georgia-Pacific mill, which pumps out 45 million gallons of wastewater a day, much into ponds and streams. The Ouachita River, which wends past the mill, blackens at Crossett. Local doctors, a resident tells us, describe the coughing and congestion common to the area as “the Crossett crud”; another resident reports being paid by the mill’s owners to bury “feet and feet and feet of poison” near the mill underneath 4 to 6 inches of dirt. Tests confirm a high proximity of toxic chemicals in the water, and Simone Smith, an elementary-school girl, has cancer.
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The filmmakers establish all this through old-fashioned journalism: They show up, talk to people and film the poisoned life of Crossett, population 5,500. But the town is up against the heaviest of heavies: The mill is owned by Koch Industries, which resists and evades environmental regulation, especially in a red state like Arkansas.
The film becomes bumbling tragicomedy when EPA officials (from the Office of Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs) arrive in 2013 to survey the damages. They smile, look concerned, but make no promises. They have so little power that one suggests that the best way to take on Koch is “to kill ’em with kindness” because “you get more with honey than you do with vinegar.” Meanwhile, the mill forgoes its most noxious work while the regulators are in town.
Eventually, spokesKochs consent to participating in a public hearing, where they point out that cancer is the No. 2 cause of death in Arkansas and other prevaricating nonsense. Their strategy is the same that worked so long for tobacco companies and now is used by deniers of climate change: undermining clear evidence with manufactured doubt. One clever townsperson cuts through the obfuscation by inviting the Koch mouthpiece to drink a glass of Crossett tap water; the spokesman demurs, half-joking that maybe one of the citizens poisoned it.
The film ends in a Flint-like muddle, with no serious action taken to protect America’s poorest communities. The grim finale features contaminated wells and a catastrophe of compassion and grammar: A final title card begins, “Since completing this film, Donald Trump became president of the United States ...” The president didn’t complete this deeply unsettling film, of course, but under his EPA, the mill probably won’t even have to knock it off for a couple of days when the feds breeze through town.