This is a documentary about the Houston group Impact, formed in 2016 to pressure the Texas Department of Health to investigate the large number of cancer deaths occurring in the majority African American Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden neighborhoods.
In response to grassroots lobbying, the Department of Health performed an epidemiological study, which they released in September 2019. It revealed cancer rates in both neighborhoods were significantly higher than the state average.
Local families and health professionals blame the high cancer rate on creosote contamination of soil and groundwater from a nearby Union Pacific rail yard. Between 1911 and 1984, Union Pacific treated wooden railway ties with the preservative creosote (a toxic mixture of cancer causing chemicals). In January 2020, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee helped Impact organize a public meeting featuring nationally renowned anti-toxics activist Erin Brokovitch.
Impact demands that the state of Texas force Union Pacific (which made a profit of $6 billion in 2019) to address the creosote contamination, either by removing toxic chemicals from the soil and groundwater or paying for affect residents to move elsewhere.
In speaking with filmmakers, local activists reveal that regulators first learned about the contaminated groundwater in the 1980s but never informed residents.
In the US, communities of color are more likely to live near toxic and polluting industries because of the relatively low value of nearby land.
This documentary is about gun violence in Houston’s African American Third Ward. Houston, the fourth largest US city, is home to more than a dozen multibillion dollar companies. It also experienced 4,194 murders between 2003-2017.
The film begins by tracing the history of Houston’s once thriving African American community with its strong African American businesses. Beginning in the1980s, the Third Ward collapsed economically, with the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs and many small businesses. As in many other cities, as men lost their jobs, more and more households were headed by single mothers supporting their families on low-wage caretaking jobs. And growing numbers of teenagers and young adults turned to drug dealing to help their families put food on the table.
The film profiles numerous local gang members, families of young people killed by gun violence, religious leaders and community activists and organizers.
For me, hearing gang members describing their own individual experiences was the most valuable part of the film. They talk at length about their parents being continuously away from home (at work) and having nothing to show for it; their own inability to find work; the pressure and stress of providing for their families through drug dealing, hustling, stealing and even armed robbery; their regard of fellow gang members as “family”; their genuine fear of being out on the street unarmed; and their horrific experience of recovering from multiple gunshot wounds.
Although the filmmakers cite research regarding the direct correlation between poverty, lack of economic opportunity and death by gun violence, none of the solutions the film proposes to to address the main underlying problem. This, in my view, is the documentary’s major weakness. I was also disappointed that they failed to address the Third Ward’s high rate of youth suicide – which apparently is even higher than the rate of death by gun violence.
This documentary examines the plight of Houston’s poor and minority communities a month after Hurricane Harvey. As with Hurricane Katrina, they have fared much worse than Houston’s well-to-do. Many have been left homeless after flood waters contaminated with raw sewage, lead, arsenic and benzene rendered public housing facilities uninhabitable. Despite the 20 billion dollars of federal assistance Houston has received post-Harvey, former public housing residents are getting no help in being rehoused.
Houston’s environmental justice movement has spent years fighting the oil, gas and chemical plants adjacent to their schools and neighborhoods. Routine aerial emissions of benzene and other toxic chemical are already responsible for high rates of asthma and cancer. Located in a flood plain, oil/gas and chemical storage tanks and public housing facilities are subject to annual flooding.
Environmental justice activists are demanding a significant proportion of the $20 billion in disaster aid go to better flood protection. At present Houston’s sea walls only protect against a 15 foot surge. In 2008, Hurricane Ike produced a 25 foot surge. A surge of that size will flood multiple oil, gas and chemical storage tanks, releasing their toxic contents and producing the biggest environmental catastrophe in history.