Documentary Chronicles Toxic Air of Texas, Petrochemical Malpractice

Petrochemical plants were routinely releasing millions of tons of toxic pollutants into the air each year; the casualties are the people living nearby

Image from Shelter in Place. Photographer: Zed Nelson

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It was back in November 2004 that I found myself standing outside one of the largest petrochemical plants in the US, in the Texan city of Port Arthur. A grey smog hung over the plant and the air was heavy with the smell of rotting eggs, and for the second time that afternoon, two armed security guards were bearing down on us. George Bush had just been re-elected president, which pleased a large contingent of voters, but not so much the people living on the fenceline of the refineries. I was with photographer Zed Nelson, looking for any flames or flaring that we could catch on film.

If you don’t know his name, Zed is the photographer behind projects such as Gun Nation, a book about America’s love affair with guns. His conceptual approach to contemporary social issues is conveyed through arresting, thought-provoking images. So when he told me he wanted to make a documentary about the Texas oil industry, I wanted to get involved – and ended up producing it.

The idea for the film came out of a story Zed had researched and photographed for an Observer feature just as Bush had become president the first time around. Petrochemical plants were routinely releasing millions of tons of toxic pollutants into the air each year, and a loophole in the law allowed them to release thousands more in “accidental” or “unscheduled” releases. The casualties are the people living nearby, who complain they are breathing the air every day. That’s where the title comes from: Shelter in Place is the warning sent out for people to stay indoors after a significant release.

Zed’s talents were clearly going to bring a new dimension to documentary-making. I asked him why he want to make a film, as opposed to taking photographs. “I suppose it was a growing frustration with the limitations of magazine features. This story just couldn’t be translated well on the printed page.” He was also invigorated by digital technology: broadcast-quality video was simple to use and much more affordable.

Initially, we thought Zed could appear in the film, a la Nick Broomfield. On our first trip to Texas, we kept the option open. We had to drive for hundreds of miles between refinery communities, and the idea of a road movie with Zed as the link had an obvious appeal. But once we settled on one town to focus on, Port Arthur, the place itself started to feel like a character, and to add Zed as a presence seemed extraneous.

It was also clear that Zed’s style of shooting had a distinctive tone. Zed says: “I enjoy thoughtfully composed images, with no zooms or panning shots, and sometimes locking the camera off on a tripod and composing an image just like a still, with only a little movement happening in the scene.” Despite the constant interruptions by refinery security, local police and the anti-terrorist unit of the FBI, Zed’s approach was measured and ruminative, to capture the slower Texan pace as well as to allow the audience time to think. Unless we were following a specific piece of action, such as the local fireman on a practice drill, or a lawyer addressing a congregation of claimants, he would never rush a shot.

“Thinking in sequences is very different than searching for meaningful still images. The hardest things in film seem to be the most practical, least artistic necessities: remembering to film cutaways and sequences that will edit together properly. It’s the simple things that can trip you up.”

In the end, we are pleased to have made a film that shines a spotlight on to a little-known environmental issue and a single Texan community. Whether or not Shelter in Place will have a direct impact on the people we spent time with remains to be seen, but it does have a strong sense of its own style and identity, and plenty of healthy indignation.

Photo: Zed Nelson