In the late 90s, there was a boom in the David vs. Goliath subgenre of courtroom drama. Usually aimed at faceless, negligent corporations guilty of poisoning the environment, they were epitomized by films such as “The Rainmaker”, “Erin Brockovich”, and “A Civil Action”. Every one of them had scenes of lawyers meeting with the victims. They are always portrayed as destitute families in decaying houses. Their bodies decimated by the side effects of the contamination. The documentary “My Toxic Backyard” shows these families as they really exist.
Katie Damian’s film studies the residents of Asheville, North Carolina and more specifically those living within the 1 mile radius of an abandoned CTS Corporation manufacturing plant. While operational, the plant was guilty of dumping toxic chemicals, specifically trichloroethylene (an industrial solvent responsible for the true life story “A Civil Action” is based upon), contaminating the town’s water supply. The film opens with Asheville resident and father Aaron Peland watching a home movie and lamenting all the family members lost to cancer whose voices remain only on the recording. Since the closing of the plant, there have been over 70 reported cases of within that 1 mile radius. Cancer hangs over every townsperson and the entire film. So common that its eminent threat is mentioned with the nonchalance of getting a toothache. The area in Asheville is one of over 4000 “Superfund” sites in the US. Contaminated areas allotted money by the Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup. However, the process proves to be long and convoluted.
Damian’s filmmaking style recalls the grace of Barbara Kopple’s companion films “Harlan County USA” & “American Dream”. The townspeople are shown to be noble and intelligent. Since moving is not an option, they are forced to become experts in the law and the sluggish process to hold CTS accountable. Like children of a neglectful father, they have banded together against a common enemy. Considering the mounting death toll, they are remarkably calm and focused in their anger. All parties agree the situation demands attention, but the question of “when” goes frustratingly unanswered throughout the film.
No CTS corporation representative is ever interviewed in the film. No corporate office is invaded. No shareholder meeting interrupted. This is not that kind of documentary. This is a profile of people who just want what is fair. They aren’t looking for a fat settlement. They just want clean drinking water for their children and to be healthy enough to watch them grow up.