The Koch brothers are killing the people of Crossett, Arkansas
The Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific plant in Crossett, Arkansas. | Penn Road Productions

David Koch and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers—their name is pronounced like Coke—number among the top ten wealthiest men in America. They run Koch Industries, a privately held firm that has its fingers in many sectors of the economy, fossil fuels, chemicals, building materials, and pesticides among them. Their businesses are estimated to be worth $115 billion a year. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

Are you familiar with these products, perhaps? Angel Soft toilet tissue, Brawny paper towels, Dixie products, Mardi Gras napkins, Perfect Touch cups and paper products, Quilted Northern, Sparkle paper towels, Vanity Fair napkins and paper towels, Zee napkins, a great variety of Georgia-Pacific office products, and lots more.

You won’t necessarily see the Koch name on them but yes, they’re all Koch Industries trade names. The Koch brothers exert an outsized influence on American politics with their hefty donations to right-wing candidates and their anti-regulatory impact on federal, state, and local government.

It has occurred to many activists to boycott the Koch brothers. There are several internet sites devoted to exposing Koch Industries products. Three of those sites can be found here, here, and here. Now, in some cases, these products might be manufactured with union labor, so user caution is advised. No actual union-endorsed boycott has been officially called.

A new documentary film brings to light what the Georgia-Pacific (GP) paper mill has done to the community of Crossett, Ark., a town of 5,507 in the southeastern corner of the state.

In 2005, for $21 billion, the Kochs bought up the Georgia-Pacific paper company, the major employer in Crossett. Environmental conditions soon went downhill. From 2004 to 2008, the budget for Koch Industries lobbyists ballooned from $857,000 to $20 million.

One resident interviewed in the film is the sole survivor on his street. Owners of the other dozen or so homes all died of cancer, caused by emissions from the plant into the air, into the soil, and into the groundwater and running creeks and rivers. The Ouachita River is suitable for fishing and recreation until it hits Crossett, then it suddenly turns black and stinky from GP discharge.

“How many of us have to die in order to keep one job?” a Crossett resident asks.

If there is a single star of Company Town, it has to be David Bouie, a Christian pastor and deputy sheriff who worked at GP for ten years. Some of his congregants have worked at GP for up to forty years. Both he and his wife Barbara have breathing problems. Barbara relates a visit to the doctor in the next town over. His diagnosis was medically direct: “The Crossett crud.”

Crossett can be simply described as “door-to-door cancer.” The doctor said to Barbara, “You need to move.” But not everyone can move. For one thing, they have jobs at GP. And their homes are virtually worthless, sitting on chemically polluted land alongside poisonous waterways. Almost everyone in Crossett, years ago, was strong-armed into signing a release from health and property rights damage. A lot of the Black families signed for $10,000, but the white families in town received up to $210,000, against promises that an environmental cleanup was coming. It never came, and with those releases on file, it never has to.

As the shepherd of his flock, Bouie has taken on the mantle of leadership in the struggle against the Koch brothers and GP. He is not alone. The whole town is with him, although some feel intimidated from taking part in the protest against GP for fear of retaliation. “We don’t want a handout,” Bouie says. “We want this area clean.”

But Bouie is not the only hero: There are his many neighbors, both white and Black, and a clutch of scientists and advocates for the people of Crossett who testify eloquently on their behalf. Former Obama adviser on environmental issues Van Jones makes several appearances in the film as well. Why doesn’t the Environmental Protection Agency get involved in this? “There’s a lot of pressure on the EPA,” said Jones, “not to do their job.”

Regional EPA representatives are invited in for community meetings and a site inspection, but the EPA sends only its most noncommittal flunkies who are powerless against what are clearly the larger forces producing this show. The EPA may set policy, but it leaves implementation to the regions and states, and on that level the power of people like the Kochs has so far proved invincible. True, they have been fined a few million here and there for environmental abuses, but nowhere near satisfying the enormity of their crimes. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is no match for the Kochs’ lobbyists. The state tourism bureau might call it “The Natural State,” but no one goes to Crossett down in Ashley County for the nature.

Company Town illustrates well the old dialectic between federal and states’ rights. Reactionaries love to run to the federal government when they want to ban abortion or make open carry of weapons the law of the land, and then summon up our sacred “states’ rights” when they want to buy off local politicians who will look the other way while murder for profit is going on under their noses. It’s as evident as the thick plumes of smoke from the factory or the smelly chemical scum on the water or the calcification of soil from the toxic factory slag dumped on it that, in the words of Cheryl Slavant, the Ouachita Riverkeeper, “GP owns this county.”

The film was documented over a period of four years or so, and was largely completed by the time of the 2016 election. The cover-ups and failures to respond to the environmental crisis in Crossett took place during the Obama years. But there’s a postscript about Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 and his appointment of the anti-EPA litigant Scott Pruitt as head of the very agency he sued multiple times and promised to kill. To no one’s surprise, Pruitt has direct ties to the Koch brothers.

Pastor David Bouie at his church in Crossett. | Penn Road Productions

So the struggle in Crossett will not see resolution any time soon. Bouie reflects on his work, upon his mortality, and the way he will be remembered when he’s gone. “I did my very best,” he says, confident that he will be judged righteously.

Company Town recently screened in Los Angeles and upon publication may still be showing, but it is bound to crop up in other cities soon. If you can bear the pain of your blood boiling even faster and hotter than it is already, see it. Full of empathy for folks who never did wrong to anyone, it’s an important film for our time. If you are prone to shedding tears at the movies, be sure you know who manufactured your tissues.

Company Town
Directed and co-written by Natalie Kottke and Erica Sardarian
Released September 8, 2017
90 minutes.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.