Shelter in Place

View on The Global Environmental Justice site

This film was selected by Amity Doolittle, senior lecturer and research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The film guide was written by Caroline Scanlan, with research support from Liz Felker and Elham Shabahat, graduate students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Why this film was chosen
This documentary presents intimate stories of specific individuals living in the community adjacent to refineries in Corpus Christi and Port Arthur, Texas, who are exposed to toxic emissions from the petrochemical industry. The film maintains a balanced perspective by interviewing residents as well as company representatives and government officials.

However, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that companies are exploiting a legal loophole that allows them to release large quantities of unplanned emissions known as “upsets” without penalty while simultaneously denying that the emissions affect human health.

Meanwhile, local residents mount legal challenges to the emissions but are frustrated in their efforts to demonstrate a causal relationship between polluting industries and health problems, especially where there are multiple toxins involved.

Teacher's guide    
Please see the guide for maps, background information and suggested subjects, questions and activities.

Texas has become richer than all but ten of the world’s sovereign nations, but at what human cost? It is the vast, sprawling complexes of oil refineries and petrochemical plants that help make the Texan economy one of the biggest in the world. These industries are legally permitted to release millions of tons of toxic pollutants into the air each year, plus thousands of tons more in ‘accidental’ or ‘unscheduled’ releases. When these incidents happen, local residents are told to stay in their homes and tape up their windows and doors. This procedure is called “shelter in place.” Communities living on the border of these Texas industries are usually poor, African American and powerless to protest. This film is an intimate portrait of a community battling against environmental pollution and corporate power.

The vast, sprawling complexes of oil refineries and petro-chemical plants help make the Texan economy one of the biggest in the world. But does the wealth come at too a high a price to the local community? Beautifully filmed, and burningly relevant. A film that speaks to the roots of the environmental justice movement in North America.

The environmental justice focus of the film
This film shows how communities affected by toxic chemicals face enormous difficulties when they try to make their voices heard. To begin with, the overall health of the community members may be seriously compromised not only by the direct exposure to “upsets” and “chemical cocktails” but also by the lack of medical care and the chronic stress that comes from knowing that they and their children may suffer long‑term damage from exposure to the pollution. This stress, in turn, makes residents more vulnerable.

When the community challenged the polluters and pointed to actual harm to their health from the unregulated emissions, the company demanded that they demonstrate a direct connection between their exposure to specific chemicals and their compromised health. While the cumulative effect of the pollution may be scientifically evident, it remains difficult to prove a causal relationship because individual responses will vary and the actual emissions are not documented.

Finally, the residents may find themselves stymied by the complex, frustrating, and sometimes intractable process of gaining a hearing, demonstrating damages, developing regulations, and implementing controls. Meanwhile, the pollution and stress continue at a high cost to the lives and health of these low-income residents. This unfair stalemate highlights the injustice that flows from the imbalance of power between corporate interests and local communities.

"Beautifully shot, Shelter in Place is an emotionally engaging portrait of a people without a voice." - THE INTERNATIONAL FILM GUIDE


Main credits

Nelson, Zed (film director)
Nelson, Zed (director of photography)
Patterson, Hannah (film producer)

Other credits

Film editor, John Mister.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

African American Studies
Corporate Social Responsibility
Environmental Justice
Environmental Law
Human Rights
Law Enforcement
North American Studies
Occupational Health and Safety
Public Health
Race and Racism
Science and Technology
Toxic Chemicals
Toxic waste
United States


toxic pollutants,oil refineries, petro-chemical plants,"Shelter in Place", Zed Nelson, Texas, environmental justice, African American, chemical release, Port Arthur, preparedness minute, Motiva Port Arthur refinery, Corpus Christi, Jim Marston, Environmental Defense Fund, Reverend Malvaux,Latasha Zamora,Wilma Surba, Tom Pearson, upsets, upset loophole, emissions, releases, Eric Schaeffer, inequality, Environmental Protection Agency ; "Shelter in Place "; Global Environmental Justice

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