You Are Where You Live

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HDV, 25 min. 2011

You Are Where You Live chronicles the personal stories of the Clean Air Coalition’s fight for the people’s right to a healthy environment.  The film mixes hand made film, super 8 and 16mm film with HD.

The Clean Air Coalition is an organization that builds power by developing grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns in Western New York.

We are all familiar with the phrase “you are what you eat.” But it may be the case even more that “we are where we live.” Our health is, in large part, determined by where we live.

Western New York is incredibly polluted. The region’s industrial legacy has left hundreds of brown fields and a contaminated water supply. Tonawanda, the first suburb north of Buffalo, has the highest concentration of air polluters in all of New York State. The city of Buffalo’s Peace Bridge Plaza is the nation’s third largest land port where over 3,500 diesel trucks are processed and drive through residential neighborhoods. Testing and EPA reports demonstrate the Erie County has the 22nd worst air quality in the country and there are significantly elevated levels on benzene and formaldehyde, both known human carcinogens.

It should be no surprise then, that Western New York has high levels of chronic disease. Erie County ranks 55 out of 62 for health outcomes in New York State. The region has elevated rates of cancer. Tonawanda has elevated levels of breast cancer, lung cancer, bladder and thyroid cancer. The asthma rates on the west side by the trucks plaza are upwards of 45% and 4 times higher than the national average.

The film documents the connections between the environment and public health by using Western New York as a microcosm of the country.  The theory is supported by following individuals who are on the ground fighting important and timely environmental heath and justice battles.  The film focuses on three neighborhoods and three distinct public health and environmental justice issues.

The three issues that are highlighted in the documentary are as follows;

Tonawanda: corporate pollution. The film feature several ordinary people living in the shadows of industry who have banded together to combat pollution from heavy industry. Ann Sciandra lives in the heart of industrial Tonawanda. Her neighbors include Tonawanda Coke, Huntley (a coal-burning power plant) and three chemical facilities. Her Mom passed away several years ago from cancer and her Dad suffers from respiratory illness due to the heavy concentration of industry. Ann is leading the charge to get the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation to crack down on several polluters in her neighborhood. Other residents would include Jennifer Rataczjak, a mom struggling with leukemia, Tom Ryan who has had 4 different cancers and breaths with a respirator, and several other leaders from the community. Tonawanda has the highest concentration of air polluters in New York State including a coal-burning power plant, a coke plant, the world largest sponge-making facility, several chemical storage and distribution terminals, and several petroleum distribution terminals.

Buffalo’s lower west side: heavy diesel emissions from trucks. Rosa Caraballo lives on the West Side of Buffalo where nearly 45% of households have asthma from the heavy diesel fumes in the neighborhood. Her daughter has asthma and recently had a tumor removed from her lung.  Over 3,500 trucks pass through the low-income, predominately immigrant neighborhood each day due to the Peace Bridge, an international crossing between Canada and the USA.

Buffalo’s north side: heavy diesel emissions from idling buses. Renata Pokrasky lives in North Buffalo behind a lot that houses nearly 200 idling school buses. Her neighbors have breathing issues and there appears to be an elevated rate of cancer. Renata and her neighbors, in a working-class community, have joined together with the Clean Air Coalition to fight for the right to live in a clean environment.

The filmmaker and the organization were initially partnered together through the Channels program run by Squeaky Wheel, a non for profit media resource organization. Channels: Stories from the Niagara Frontier addresses the need to disseminate information about current social and political initiatives with the goal to educate people about important issues in their communities. The documentaries produced by Channels give community groups a tool to succinctly and effectively address problems and issues through the powerful medium of documentary film.

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