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Green Machine

A Cancer Alley documentary cruises down the chemical corridor to New Orleans.

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To us, the people that's in charge of this ... they don't see human beings. All they see is green. And do you know what green is? M-O-N-E-Y."

So opines an elderly resident of Louisiana's Cancer Alley, the corridor housing about 150 petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The woman is fuming to filmmaker Laura Dunn in her documentary Green. And she is just part of the new film's patchwork of the faces and stories of people involved in Louisiana's petrochemical industry -- from low-income residents living in the plants' shadows to elected officials to corporate talking heads.

This week, Dunn is in Cancer Alley itself, showing the film in such venues as libraries, churches, local union halls and Masonic halls. The filmmakers are bringing their own equipment in case the locations don't have projectors, and grassroots organizations are helping to spread the word.

"We're working our way down the river," says Dunn. "We're taking a video projector and a sound system; we want to go into the communities. All the people who helped to organize [the tour] are either in the movie or they know people in the movie."

Like the tour, the movie Green begins in Baton Rouge, with a 13-year-old discussing the everyday ignominies she endures from a lifetime with cancer -- such as embarrassment about surgery scars -- and travels down through River Road communities occupied by refineries and plants lured by tax incentives and lenient monitoring systems. It ends up in New Orleans, spotlighting Ninth Ward residents whose homes were built on a Superfund site, fighting in vain to have the federal government relocate them.

Dunn, a University of Texas-Austin graduate student, spent 18 months piecing together the multi-layered puzzle of Cancer Alley.

The 47-minute film raises many questions without answering all of them -- it introduces the late 1990s controversy involving the proposed Shintech plant in the Convent community without revealing the end result: that the plant set up in nearby Plaquemine. She does, however, include some scenes that seem to tell the whole story in microcosm. A chemical worker describes plant chutes that routinely dump heavy metals into the river, and says it's the plants' responsibility to monitor their own waste levels and to report violations to the Environmental Protection Agency. "I've never reported on myself for speeding," the worker says sardonically.

Dunn also features a segment with Kevin Reilly of the Department of Economic Development sitting next to Dale Givens of the state Department of Environmental Quality. In it, Reilly begins to insist the high instances of cancer along the chemical corridor aren't necessarily caused by pollution, and Givens literally finishes his sentence for him.

"These issues are hard issues, and they get hit again and again -- like picking at a scar," Dunn says. "It's not bad people, it's bad systems, and you have certain people who, for whatever reason, have adopted the system."

Dunn is on a Louisiana tour this week, showing Green in Baton Rouge on Sunday (March 4), Plaquemine on Monday (March 5), Gonzales on Tuesday (March 6), Convent on Wednesday (March 7), and Norco on Thursday (March 8). New Orleans screenings are 8 p.m. Friday at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center; 1 p.m. Saturday at a not-yet-determined location on Agriculture Street; and 7 p.m. Saturday at Tulane University's Woldenberg Arts Center. For more information on the Green tour, call Rene Broussard at 525-2767, Peggy Granpre at 947-1882, Katie Kemp at 865-4921, or David Carroll at (512) 462-2695.

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