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Screening Shintech

The Louisiana environmental struggle comes to the Lifetime Channel, and one participant praises the movie for getting it right.

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She hasn't viewed the movie yet, but Lisa Lavie Jordan liked what she saw in the script for Taking Back Our Town, Lifetime's fictionalized account of the successful attempt to keep the Shintech biochemical company from building a plant in St. James Parish's Convent community.

"I was somewhat amazed at how they got most of the personalities down," says Jordan, who was the lead attorney for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which represented a community organization formed to fight Shintech. "It was hard to recreate the dialogue word for word, but there was one scene with (Gov. Mike Foster), and they almost got that word for word."

What the movie gets is how a small group, called the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, led by resident Pat Melancon, overcame seemingly insurmountable odds over a three-year period (1996-98). Claiming that Shintech's processing of certain biochemicals represented a hazard to a community already plagued by health concerns possibly related to toxic waste, the group ultimately convinced Shintech to retreat from Convent and go elsewhere. The citizens group had petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to consider blocking the plant on the grounds that it went against the relatively new concept of "environmental justice."

Taking Back Our Town, directed by Sam Pillsbury (Zandalee), stars ER's Laura Innes as Melancon and Ruby Dee as feisty Emelda West, who rallied the town's African-American community. (A bow-tie-wearing Foster is played by Paul Vincent O'Connor.) It's no Erin Brockovich, but what it lacks in dramatic wallop it more than makes up for in its ability to simplify complex legal, political and environmental issues while quantifying the human toll the battle took on Melancon's family life. The movie depicts city, state and Shintech officials maneuvering and deceiving residents to put through fast-track approval for the proposed $700 million plant that promised 165 jobs. At one point, the movie hints that Melancon, who received several anonymous threats, was being followed.

The controversy became the focus of freelance reporter Christi Daugherty's work, much of which ran in Gambit Weekly and which Jordan credits for helping bring the issue to the public eye. Daugherty won numerous awards for her work, including first place in best investigative reporting from the Press Club of New Orleans' 1999 competition. "Christi did a much more thorough job keeping up with it, and writing stuff when it happened," says Jordan, who ran the Clinic for a year but is currently taking time out to raise her two small children.

Jordan confesses that initially, she thought the battle was a lost cause, agreeing with the movie's account of how the Environmental Law Clinic first declined to help. It eventually took on the case, and Foster later persuaded the state Supreme Court to limit the Clinic's ability to handle similar cases in the future.

"Everybody and their brother was in favor of this thing," Jordan explains, "and it also was being fast-tracked. Gradually, I really started to believe in this, and it was really because of [Melancon's group]. It boils down to faith, because they're a very religious community."

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