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Work In Progress—Documentary

Mossville: A Story of Life and Death

by Frank Dexter Brown
EarthAfrica News Service

Following are images and excerpts from Frank Dexter Brown's cyber documentary on the historic Black town of Mossville, La., destroyed by chemical contamination. The complete documentary can be seen this month at

For years, fears had been building of flares that lit up the night, of tremors that shook homes; of ever-present smells lingering outside doors and seeping into houses—through walls, floorboards and closed windows.

Trains rumbled by, swaying with unknown, deadly chemical fluids. Spills of contaminants occasionally resulted in evacuations; in television and radio alerts and shrill plant sirens that warned everyone to stay indoors. But now, few are left to worry about such things in Mossville, La.

This is a story of industry encroaching on an 130-year-old African American enclave—taking over slowly, contaminating the land, forcing people out and destroying health, even causing death, some say. This is a story repeated throughout the state in other small, Black towns, most of which date back to the end of African enslavement—Sunrise, Reveilletown, Morrisonville, Cut Off…

But what is distinct about the case of Mossville is that, unlike many other severe pollution cases of African American communities in the country, this one has resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement for the water and land contamination. Few of the people living in that contaminated zone, however, have received significant compensation. Instead the attorneys have earned multi-million dollar fees and the polluters have received protection from later suits regarding the community's health…

These are voices from Mossville, a small, historic African American community of about 600 people—an area of mass dislocation and dangerous contamination that is quickly becoming a ghost town…

Whitney Harris, professor, historian and college administrator, Lake Charles, Louisiana.

What you're doing is foreclosing on a whole generation of rootedness. I'm convinced that the powers that be knew, were aware of what they were doing, where they were doing it and made a choice to do it, because they saw the other alternative as much too expensive. And African Americans as a group have a history of being more tolerant, of being pushed around. If that same thing was happening with, say, a nearby predominately white community called Moss Bluff, it would be civil war.

Debra Ramirez, a mother of three, environmental and social activist driven to fight for her community because of industrial destruction of the land on which her family has lived for almost 130 years.

Debra Ramirez and her mother.

Mossville—it was worse than a Third World. Sewage in the ditch, …sewage all over the roads, feces all in the water where it had rained and it had flooded. Children walking in that, having to be subjected to walking through it in the streets and riding their bikes through it, playing in it. Even during the ice storm, we saw a man take a dip of pot of water out of the ditch right next to the contaminated ditch where he lived on VCM Plant Road. And I cried. Because I looked at this community and remembered how it used to look: beautiful green grass and tall pine trees and oak trees and tallow trees. And now all I see are dead pine trees and dead oak trees and houses—torn down like people abused their homes—and wouldn't fix them up or something. And I know that wasn't the case because I have been in and out of many of those households.

Stacy Ryan, a young man suffering from a number of health ailments that he and his family believe can be traced to industrial pollution.

Healthwise it's all the little aches and pains. Like in my head, sharp pinpoint pain. It's not like a normal headache; it really hurts. Pinpoint pain like in my chest, in my throat, in my sinus. Little-bitty things. Pinpoint pain in the legs. Like someone taking an ice pick and picking a certain part of your body out. …And its all the little rashes and bites. It looks like an ant bit you, but when you look at it real closely there's holes all through your skin. You can see straight through to your muscle almost. Little-bitty pin holes. …Like I say, I don't go out. …I might read a Bible in my room, but I don't go out. I don't even go to my church anymore because I don't want to go in public with all these rashes. It's really, really embarrassing. When I do go out, it's at night, when there's hardly anybody out there. No sun beaming down, it's cooler. I wear a hood to cover my head because on my head there's spots where hair is just falling out. Just normal things like sitting here in this chair are very, very hard. Like my back is itching like crazy. But if I scratch it, it'll burn. It's just something you get used to. Some days it's worse than others."

Diane Prince, a mother of three, suffers from cancer of the uterus. She moved to the area in the late 70's to escape the harshness of the urban Northeastern for a quieter lifestyle of the rural south.

So this is what happens with people with a terminal illness. You have to plan; you have to do things. And this is what these people have done to me. They've taken this life I had, this world of giving that I had to give to my daughters. I have molded these kids into good, productive human beings, responsible people. And it wasn't very easy. But I did it. And I don't feel as if I'll be able to reap the benefits of being able to see my grandchildren because--and I'm not afraid to say it anymore—I know [industry] gave me cancer. I know that. And what makes me so angry is that they're not responsible, they're not responsible to pay for what they've done to me. And for what they've taken away from my children, and from my husband. I'm angry. But all that, all that stress that they've put us under, all the duress makes us function, makes us stronger. And we are not going to give in to them. We're just not going to give in to them. Under these present conditions we're under, they will not get a stitch of this property. .They will not. They will not get it."

Erica Jackson and Van.

Erica Jackson, a mother suffering severe health ailments.

"Me myself, I have a deformation in my face. I've been to the doctor; they don't know what it is. They don't know what caused it. I think it is because of the water that I drink here, and the air that I smell here. I think they did this to me. (cries more deeply) I can't walk. I can't close my eye. My eye dries out all the time. I have chest pains. I can't breath too good. And I was a happy woman. I didn't have all these problems. Believe me, I acquired this. …Look at me, the money that they give me was not enough for my health …I think they gave us that water money to shut us up. To keep us quiet, okay. And if we didn't take the little bit that they gave us, we got nothing. We had no choices in this matter.

Haki Vincent, whose family dates to the original settlers:

The plants are like some big monster killing machine, it's horrible. Iron and concrete is all you see, like prisons. It looks like death, like they're manufacturing death there because you see nothing but pollution and smoke coming from everywhere. To me the term plant is short for plantation.

-- April 9, 2001

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