Shelter in Place is a devastating exploration of the oil industry’s impact on the health and life quality of the inhabitants of Port Arthur, a small Texan town framed against the backdrop of flaming oil rigs and smothering black smog.
Named for the safety procedure residents enact to combat the toxic fumes and dense smoke generated by the nearby oil refineries, this film paints a bleak portrait of a business that has made the Texas economy one of the biggest in the world.
“How many of you know a child with acute asthma?” local preacher Reverend Malveaux inquires of his congregation. The majority of attendees raised their hands. Title cards inform the audience that each year millions of toxic chemicals are legally emitted into the air from the refineries in what are known as “upsets.”
The “Upset Law” exists to allow the oil factories to release toxins during urgent situations in order to protect safety workers and/or the integrity of the plant, essentially over the better interests of nearby residents. At best, residents are advised to “shelter in place”: that is, shut their doors and tape up their windows. There are no penalties for these upsets as long as they are reported properly, with occurrences numbering in the tens of thousands annually.
Although residents have complained about the proximity of the refineries to their homes, their voices have little impact. In demographic terms, Port Arthur is primarily home to minimally educated, low-income, African Americans with no “political influence,” as Revered Malveaux puts it. Interviews with area residents reveal the physical effects of living under the cloud of the refineries.
Images of children breathing through oxygen masks and respirators illustrate the suffering the locals have endured in the interest of their state economy. It is typical for members of this community to receive visits from refinery officials that often come when residents fall ill from the many pollutants (and typically result in payoff offers).
A stark vignette of the conflicting interests of civilians against the industry, Shelter in Place forces viewers to evaluate the priorities of a society that allows this level of pollution to affect the life quality of American citizens.