West Virginia Water Crisis Film Excerpt

This is the work-in-progress excerpt from my film on the West Virginia Water Crisis that I showed at the West Virginia International Film Festival on May 13, 2014.

*Caption titled “natural disaster” should read “national disaster.”

Although the majority of my footage for the film is of individual citizen’s responses to the crisis, I chose Dr. Andrew Whelton as the sole narrator for this piece because I felt that his story made for a more cohesive and in-depth narrative for such a short excerpt of the film. Dr. Whelton and his research team came unsolicited and unfunded from the University of South Alabama to test the effects of the contaminated water on plumbing systems in affected residents’ homes. As you will see from this clip, their perspectives and understandings of the crisis evolved and forced their work to evolve as well.

At the end of the clip, Dr. Whelton offers a perspective on who is responsible for the botched response to the water crisis that may be surprising to some. I know it certainly was for me. I think it’s important to remember that we all have different perspectives to offer on this, and that this is just one of those perspectives. However, I think Dr. Whelton’s message about who is responsible for the poor communication following the chemical spill instructs us all to take a broader view of the systemic inequalities that contributed to these problems.

It’s also important to know that made this clip for a West Virginia audience, so there is some footage that requires insider knowledge. For example, the last clip of the protest is located at the Governor’s Mansion and is paired with the audio narrative about Dr. Whelton’s meeting with the governor.

I would like to thank the WVIFF, the sponsors for the event, and the other filmmakers for their dedication and creativity that is so clearly evident in their films. I also would like to thank Dr. Whelton and all of the participants in this film, as well as the National Science Foundation for providing a grant that made this film possible. And, of course, I would like to thank my friends, family, professors, and the people of West Virginia for supporting me and inspiring me to keep going on this project.

Ultimately, I hope that my film can help improve communication between the scientific community, public officials responding to crises, and the people on the ground experiencing the crises. We all have a lot to learn about how to deal with events like this and there is a desperate need for us to start being proactive to prevent them from happening in the future.


Update on Information Presented at Erin Brockovich Town Hall

As I export my video from the Brockovich town hall about the West Virginia Water Crisis, I will be posting my summaries of and take on the information they gave us there, starting with this:

Erin Brockovich speaking at the town hall

We have already become an anecdote. The national news media is now treating this gross negligence on the part of Freedom Industries and the attendant water crisis as an “accident” that is nearly resolved. I watched the news headlines this morning. We weren’t even mentioned by NBC. Our story took less than 30 seconds on Good Morning America, which then had a story immediately following about a picture of Oprah repairing her own toilet. Here is why we are not a passing news story but a huge crisis that is indicative of incredibly far-reaching negligence and abuse:

It is now day 6 since the chemical spill occurred in Charleston, West Virginia and no one is asking why we haven’t complied to the Source Water Protection Program, which requires the state and federal government to comply with the Clean Water Act by taking an inventory of chemicals in the area around the water plants so they are not surprised and are prepared to deal with these chemicals. Where is the Source Water Protection Program and why weren’t those chemicals inventoried? The news media is NOT asking questions that consumers deserve to know.

Some basic facts about MCHM, the spilled chemical: it is a benzene used in coal washing and jet fuel. Other than that, we don’t know much, as this product was created and patented in 1999. We have seen the health effects of this product in the short-term already, but we don’t know what the long-term effects are for exposure at this level.

The State government is now telling residents in the affected counties to flush their water through their system to “get rid of” the contaminated water. As Bob Bowcock of Erin Brockovich’s team explains, you may be exchanging good water out for bad. In many places, the water in people’s lines and systems is still better water than what would now be coming through. So they’re telling people to run hot water for 15 minutes, then cold water for 5 minutes, and to replace your ice and Brita water filters (with no mention of the fact that your refrigerator has a filter, as does your water tank and many other appliances in your home, like your Keurig or other coffee maker).

The water that they are now running through, as many people have shown in photos and videos, is clearly contaminated. 20 minutes of running the water through a home water system is not getting clean water. Because the water it’s being replaced with is still contaminated! Although they’re telling residents 1 parts per million (ppm) is safe, they have no precedent to make that judgment. This limit is an arbitrary number they have given the public to make us feel more in control of this disaster. The fact is that they don’t know what’s safe. Here is a reference point for you: they regulate other chemicals in your drinking water in parts per billion (ppb) and parts per trillion (ppt). So how are they “defining” safe as 1 ppm?

Now, people who are “flushing their systems” are becoming ill because they are breathing in this contaminant. Neither the government or the news media has suggested that people leave their home while the water runs or even open their windows and doors, which Erin’s team urge people to do.

No one has mentioned to us that not only is this chemical dangerous on its own, flowing through a water treatment plant that adds more chemicals to it. If you know much about how chemicals work, you know this can cause chemicals to oxidize and form new, possibly even more harmful, chemicals. This idea has not been presented to the public through the news or by the government or WV American Water in any of their press conferences. Consumer confidence reports explain that they regulate these “disinfection byproducts” like trihalomethanes or haloecitic acids, which are measured in parts per billion because they are carcinogenic and toxic. They are created when chlorine oxidizes organics, and the same thing is happening to this chemical. They have not done the research to find whether the MCHM has oxidized into other chemicals, many of which are much more dangerous than MCHM.

Again, they’re telling residents that after running the water for only 20 minutes it will be safe. This is completely arbitrary. Here’s a clue: Cincinnati has shut down their water intake systems for the next 48 hours.