Two Asheville filmmakers are putting a spotlight on the impacts of coal ash, the noxious waste left behind after coal is burned.
Carly Calhoun and Sam Despeaux spent nearly three years shooting and editing footage for Downwind and Downstream, a series of four short films on different areas of the U.S. impacted by coal-ash contamination. She says the impetus for the project really began after the widely publicized 2008 coal-ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the largest in U.S. history. (A dike containing coal-ash slurry at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured, releasing 1 billion gallons of runoff and leaving sludge deposits up to 6 feet deep.)
“We wanted to understand not only what was happening to people, but what the root of the problem was,” says Calhoun. “Why is coal ash not regulated as a hazardous waste? Why was little to nothing being done?”
Trying to find answers to these questions led Calhoun and her producing partner, Sam Despeaux, to four states: Kentucky, Montana, Nevada and North Carolina.
In the North Carolina documentary, the filmmakers explore the problems that have arisen from having three major coal-fired power plants along the Catawba River and its reservoirs, which serve as the primary drinking supply for Mecklenburg County, including Charlotte. The county’s local water quality manager remarks that while the water is safe for drinking, his department has found, on occasion, elevated levels of arsenic below the ash basin of one of the plants.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison is also interviewed in the film, noting, “We have been unable to get beyond the influence of the power companies in terms of adopting regulations and legislation that more strictly manages the use and disposal of coal ash.”
Calhoun says what surprised her most about her home state was the lack of regulation. “I couldn’t believe there were no limits on the amounts of arsenic that can be released into our waterways,” she says.“That was shocking.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, though it contains lead, arsenic, mercury and other toxins. Calhoun explains that politics plays a large role in environmental policy, and regulatory loopholes result in state agencies having “their hands tied a lot of the time.”
Throughout the films, scenic wide-angle shots of rivers, mountains and vistas are interspersed with interviews from local and state officials, as well as impacted community members. For Calhoun and Despeaux, balancing visuals with information is important, though she says she never shies away from tackling difficult subjects.
Says Calhoun: “You need to understand what is going on on the political and regulatory level to get the big picture.”
And their work isn’t finished. The documentarians are currently raising funds through popular crowd-funding site Kickstarter to do a feature-length documentary on the shifting demand for coal exports to Asia, expanding upon their short film on two Montana cattle ranchers fighting to protect their land. The film is called Things of Intrinsic Worth.
The Kickstarter campaign has raised about $28,000 of its $135,000 goal, with 20 days to go. Kickstarter only allows projects to keep the money if they raise their target amount.
Says Calhoun, “The question behind the whole series is: who is being protected in our country, is it us or is it industry? … I think most of us understand the importance of the larger story of how this is affecting people’s lives.”