‘The Big Sea‘ is a new documentary that has investigated surfing’s hidden links to Cancer Alley.
Filmmaker and surfer Lewis Arnold travelled to the Denka factory in Louisiana, where most of the world’s neoprene, the commercial name for chloroprene rubber, is made. Here the EPA states that the cancer risk to the community is the highest in the USA – 50 times the national average, due to the chloroprene emissions from the Denka plant. The area around the plant has been called ‘Cancer Alley’ for that reason.
Wavelength talked to Lewis about the issues raised in the film, and what we can do about what he calls ‘surfing’s dirty secret.’
Wavelength: As a surfer from the Northeast of England, a wetsuit is pretty crucial right?
Lewis: Absolutely, The North Sea is one of the colder places you can go surfing. I worked out that I’ve had 25 wetsuits in my surfing lifetime. They facilitated my surfing and my job as a filmmaker and photographer.
Throughout all that time I wasn’t aware of how little I knew about how they were made. Like most surfers, I thought neoprene must have been some wonder element. But when you are talking about neoprene, you are talking about chloroprene rubber.
When did you discover chloroprene production’s links to cancer?
My background is in newspaper photojournalism, and a former colleague at the Guardian passed on their year-long expose on the issue.
How did that lead you to make a film on the subject?
When I found out, I was studying for a Masters in Photography and so I was looking for a subject with depth for my dissertation. I got my student loan and went to St John’s Parish, Louisiana to film around the plant and the people. I wanted to make an artistic film to show the issue through a creative process.
Has that version changed much?
The original film was way harsher. It was a grenade going off. It was loads of shots of the plant, loads of surfing, and some heavy testimony from the residents who had suffered for years. The advantage of that arty approach was that I could say a lot more, but some of it could have been libellous.
How did it change?
I had submitted it to a few film festivals, and Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor from the LSFF got in touch. The film resonated with them, but they thought it could be a more mainstream examination if it was a more well-rounded, balanced version. That would help get a bigger audience.
Is it surprising that more surfers don’t know about the issue?
I went into the film with the idea of protecting surfing. Denka was boasting about how through surfing their products enable people to connect with the environment. They didn’t boast about making glue. Surfing was the greenwashing tool. So I thought surfing was getting taken advantage of.
And was it?
When you dig into it, the surfing industry has known about this and has been complicit and still is. Advertising is an example. Surfing has said that limestone is the eco option. It isn’t; it’s no different. It’s just a different way to make chloroprene and chloroprene is the problem. That is disinformation, and so perhaps it is no wonder that surfers weren’t aware of it.
And the surf media?
I’ve gone to the surf media, and they have ignored it. They have known about the issue, and still haven’t covered it. So that’s a conscious decision. There are some ingrained principles in the surf industry that they will be uncomfortable when this film comes out. Some brands have attacked us, with an alarming lack of knowledge. Others are making 1 out of 10 wetsuits made from natural rubber or Yulex, but that’s just ticking the green box. They are still making money from neoprene.
And that involves chloroprene from Cancer Alley?
If a brand is using chloroprene, they are doing business with Denka. And Denka is getting sued in the USA because they are emitting high levels of chloroprene into a community that has been suffering since the 1970s. If you know that, it’s morally wrong to do business with them.
The film proposes that natural rubber, of which Yulex is the market leader, can provide a solution.
Natural, or plant-based, rubber has been around for a while and it is getting better. I’ve had to do a lot of research on the technology for the film and all the objections I have come across are bogus. The raw materials are cheaper. I’d say the performance is the same as neoprene. It also is a zero-waste production process and emits 80% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than neoprene.
What can surfers do in your opinion?
Right now, the production of neoprene is putting a price on people’s lives. It’s easy to distance yourself from that. There’s a lot of awful stuff going on in the world and it’s easy to get a sense of futility. But there is a solution here. And surfing can take a lead on this. There are the health issues that are horrendously pronounced, there’s the climate emission issue and there’s the environmental racism race side of it. Look I’m just a past-it surfer from the North Sea, but as a journalist, I feel a responsibility to get the facts out there. Surfers can then make a choice.
How is there an environmental racism angle to the Denka plant?
This plant is an egregious example of environmental racism. There was a similar plant in Kentucky, and that was shut down. So Dupont decided that it was unacceptable to release the toxins in a white neighbourhood, but acceptable in a majority black one. They sold the Louisiana plan to Denka in 2015. In California, where most USA surfers live, this plant would be illegal. There chloroprene is on the Proposition 65 list because it can cause cancer.
What next for the film?
We are doing a Kickstarter to raise funds to help finish the film, support post-production, and fund future screenings and distribution. We just want as many people to see the film as possible.