Interview with Maro Chermayeff
When did you begin filming this story?
We started covering the story in about 2005 and locked picture this spring.
In what ways did the community change over that time frame?
They found their voice. They wanted to be heard, found the roots to be heard, and were acknowledged by the EPA - even sitting behind Lisa Jackson at her confirmation hearing. They've been sharing their message with other communities that are suffering under the duress of toxic waste. They also had a lot of twists and turns in the legal road. They had to re-determine for themselves what justice looks like.
Is the area now safe to live in?
There is a continued risk, and there could be a permanent continued risk. The extent of that risk is still being determined. This story is not done.
When it became apparent how immense the damage was, did the community ever consider moving on?
A few individuals have, but many refuse. Their ancestors for multiple generations - two to three hundred years - have been living on that land. On top of that, they don't have any money. Their homes and properties have been rendered valueless by living on top of a Superfund site.
Is anyone in the community entirely healthy?
I've never seen anyone come through completely unscathed. The expert toxicologist working on the case said it was one of the sickest communities he'd ever looked at. Every person has something - from a skin rash to cancer, diabetes to teeth loss - caused by dioxins.
Why were the plaintiffs unable to prove there were toxic levels of dioxins in the area?
I'm not a scientist, but one of the issues might have been that the dioxins they were testing for in the attic were simply far too removed from when they were released by a large fire 25 years ago. The plaintiffs were still refining their science methods as the case was going down the funnel. If they had more time or resources, they could've done more focused levels of testing. It's very hard to prove evidence or scientific connection, and it's very costly.
Don't the rampant health issues and the lack of an elderly population in the area prove something?
Insinuate? Yes. Prove? No. Nobody felt that this community wasn't sick. But what you have to prove in a lawsuit is that these sicknesses are the direct result of the Ford Motor Company. That's hard. There are all kinds of mitigating factors that Ford lawyers can point to - arsenic mines and other Superfund sites nearby.
Is there any doubt in your mind that Ford caused these people's illnesses?
In the film, community leader Wayne Mann says Ford committed a hate crime against his people. Why does he call it that?
He feels there was an intentional disregard for his community. They were selected. Ford didn't dump on a middle class community down the road. They chose where they were going to dump and did so continuously: mines, rivers, even on people's lawns. And they did so because it was a powerless community - Native American, poor, and lacking any political clout. That's the basis for environmental racism.
Do you view the lack of a trial and the resulting settlement as a failure of the justice system?
I view it as a disappointment. They have so many health needs and so little money. I would've loved to see them receive a settlement that compensated them or gave them a leg up for the next stage of their lives, through medical resources or assistance, or enough money to make a real change in their lives.
What drew you to this subject?
I thought it was an incredibly important and interesting story, both because of the people and the lawyers representing them. The fight was immediate. It wasn't a past tense story, it was ongoing and we could follow it. Also, it resonated and had meaning in comparable communities across the country. We hope it makes you fire up your computer, input your zip code and find out who's poisoning you.
Are you hoping someone at Ford will see this film and decide the company should help out with the problem it created?
No, I don't think so. They're a company. I haven't seen corporate America step up and do the right thing, and I'm not expecting them to do it overnight. I think they want to make money, and they don't care at all about those 600 people. I mean, do you think Goldman Sachs is worried that they're taking everyone's money?