Residents have long complained about pollution from the Koch Industries-owned Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Crossett and they now have some powerful new attention from The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who’s written a book about the Kochs, and a new documentary film, “Company Town.”
The piece opens with mention of the Koch’s PR campaign intended to portray concern about the country’s economic divide and sympathy for the downtrodden.
But, according to Dickie Guice, who worked as a safety coördinator at a large Koch-owned paper plant in Arkansas, the company need not have gone to such lengths. Instead of scouting America for examples of social neglect, the Kochs could have turned the cameras on their own factory.
This summer, Guice decided to speak out about the paper mill in Crossett, a working-class town of some fifty-two thousand residents ten miles north of the Louisiana border. The mill is run by the paper giant Georgia-Pacific, which has been owned by Koch Industries since 2005. According to E.P.A. records, it emits more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals each year, including numerous known carcinogens. Georgia-Pacific says that it has permits to operate the mill as it does, and disputes that it is harming local health and safety. But as far back as the nineteen-nineties, people living near the plant have described noxious odors and corrosive effluents that have forced them to stay indoors, as well as what seems to them unusually high rates of illness and death. Speaking by phone from his home, in Sterlington, Louisiana, Guice pointed the finger directly at the mill’s owners, and described a corporate coverup of air and water pollution that he says is “poisoning” the predominantly African-American community.
Noted: The New Yorker’s famed fact-checking team missed one in that passage. It says Crossett has 52,000 residents. It’s more like 5,200. (Now corrected.)
Guice is featured in the new documentary “Company Town.” This follows reporting by Newsweek earlier this year on pollution there. But Guice is the first eyewitness to come forward.
Guice gives Mayer a detailed and harrowing description of disposal of hazardous materials at the plant. A Koch spokesman disputes the account. Defenders cite tests that show safe drinking water from the public supply. Residents say that doesn’t cover well water in the area. And they also raise questions about cancer clusters in the area.
Guice says that another paper mill owned by Georgia-Pacific that he worked for, in Port Hudson, Louisiana, met high environmental standards. “It can be done,” he said. But Guice noted that Crossett residents have limited political and economic leverage. Georgia-Pacific accounts for much of the town’s employment. “If Georgia-Pacific were to die, Crossett would die. Georgia-Pacific is a big taxpayer in Arkansas, too. That’s why everybody turns their back on this,” he told me.
A lawsuit has been filed. More people are watching. Mayer concludes:
The images of Crossett’s African-American residents wheezing as they struggle with industrial pollution in their own back yards, as captured in “Company Town,” could have aptly illustrated the Kochs’ “End the Divide” campaign. But, of course, these particular disadvantaged Americans were omitted from the commercial. “It really disturbed me,” Kottke-Masocco said, recalling how she felt when she first saw the new Koch ad. “The two-tiered, winner-take-all, divided system that the Kochs say they want to end has been directly created by the financial influence of corporations like theirs on politics.”
“Crossett, Arkansas,” she said, “is the perfect example.”
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality will be getting right on this, right?
The Kochs finance Americans for Prosperity and other political organizations aimed at cementing Republican control of government from the statehouses through Congress.