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The Flint, Michigan, lead contamination disaster in 2015 raised awareness about the dangers of unsafe water. A new documentary, “Troubled Water,” created by journalism students at Arizona State University, explores how communities around the nation are affected, and how grassroots efforts are fighting back to bring clean water to families. Judy Woodruff reports.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, exposed dangers lingering in our pipes.
A project at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University asked students to identify other Flint, Michigans, around the country.
The result is a 26-minute documentary called "Troubled Water."
One cause of contamination students found was coal ash, a byproduct of power plants.
Judy Woodruff is in Arizona and spoke to a few of those behind the film.
Let's start with this excerpt.
The reason I wanted to show you this neighborhood is, there is 279,000 tons of coal ash that is buried. You know, we live so close to these massive pits that are unmined, that do sit in the groundwater. And we have wells that are pumping the water from the ground.
Now, all of these neighbors are receiving bottled water.
Our state toxicologist called me. And I will never forget that day.
He was like, I don't want you cooking with your water. I don't want you bathing in your water. He goes, I wouldn't even give my dogs or my animals this water.
This is our first time, expecting our first child. We're very excited to start our new life.
We actually got in touch with someone from Duke, and asked them about the plant, that we're living here. We're new. And they were, like, oh, you know, you don't have to worry about anything, it's environmentally tested, and we're your neighbors, we care about you.
So, I want to say, naively, we believed them.
Everything that's happened with these neighbors, nobody's done more to care for them than Duke. Like you would see underneath any industrial type facility, you could see some impact to groundwater. We have been transparent about that.
But there is an enormous body of evidence that tells us that groundwater from ash basins are not impacting neighbors' wells.
EPA looked at coal ash over and over and over again. The scientists studied it, and determined it is not toxic.
Dr. Avner Vengosh:
There is no doubt in my mind that coal ash is a hazard. There are numerous studies. And the amount of contaminants coming from coal ash is alarming.
In fact, we also see high level of hexavalent chromium coming from coal ash. Unlike the EPA ruling, it should be considered as hazard waste.
However, in the process of looking at the effect of the coal ash, we realize that hexavalent chromium is naturally occurring. But the fact that it's naturally occurring doesn't mean that it's not — would not hurt you.
Now, at the same time, we do see the evidence of coal ash contamination and leaking into the environment. So, there is a time bomb. It's ticking and it's coming.
You don't have to be a doctor to take common sense to see why this is happening.
All the deaths in the six or seven hours houses, I mean, let's think about that. Too many cancers. And my own — my husband has cancer.
When somebody you love, and you see them suffering, and you can't do anything about it, it's hard. And, yes, I feel that it's due to the ashes. When we move here, and you can see them actually blow, like snow in the air, duh.
When we started receiving letters from the state that said don't drink the water, we really got concerned with that. I know it's naturally occurring, but a normal sample wouldn't be as high as it is in our well water.
Didn't have all the facts right, but I just want things fixed. I just want things done right.
I'm here at Arizona State University in the studios of the Cronkite School with three people who worked very closely on this documentary, starting with Professor Jacquee Petchel, who, as a member of the faculty, oversaw this project.
Seated next to her, Jasmine Spearing-Bowen, who is a graduate student here at the Cronkite School. And next to me, Claire Caulfield, who is a recent graduate of the Cronkite School at Arizona State.
I want to come back to you.
Professor Petchel, the country heard so much about Flint, Michigan, the problem with lead in the water there. People tend to think, well, it happens in some places, but it's not all over the country. But you found it is everywhere.
Professor, Arizona State University: We wanted to look at places like Flint, both in big cities and small cities, and in rural communities and urban communities and the Native American lands.
The project very much was focused on water, but the sort of underlying theme of the whole thing also involved environmental justice, and whether and whether poor communities of color or poor rural communities had more likelihood of having contaminated water, which appears to be the case.
Jasmine, did you find that in the places where you all traveled, people in those communities knew what was going on? Were they learning about it? What did you find?
Specifically in Belmont, North Carolina, and there are several communities in North Carolina that are actually affected.
And really what you see there is people becoming advocates for themselves and really like trying to work with the government, working with these advocacy groups to make sure that people understand what's happening and to try and effect change.
So it was really inspiring, seeing how these people are — not even just for themselves, but they really want people everywhere to understand you have to really understand where your water is coming from and what could be in it.
Claire, it's interesting, what you said, picking up on Jasmine's point just now, that people shouldn't feel that they're helpless in a situation like this, because often people think, oh, it's this big industrial issue or big government issue.
But what you're saying is that people really do have the ability to do something about it.
And that was one great takeaway from the documentary. When I was in Montana, there was this tribal community. And it was really a grassroots effort to start delivering water coolers and free testing kits these really, really rural places where they're on their own well water. It's economically disadvantaged, so they didn't have all the resources.
It's people stepping up, taking their own initiative to bring clean water to kids, because it can really, really hurt children. If they're drinking contaminated water, they live with that for the rest of their lives.
Yes, for sure.
Professor Petchel, do you think this documentary can make a difference? When people see this, do you think they will take matters into their own hands?
Well, I certainly would hope so.
I think that it helps people. Not only are you seeing the importance of water nationally, but you're seeing the faces of people in other communities, some who are like you and some who are not. And so you see that it's somewhat — it's not particular to a certain kind of person or place. It can affect anyone.
Jasmine, how much trouble did you have getting people to talk?
We in Belmont — and the North Carolina people were very willing to tell us, because I think they have learned that it's really about bringing attention to the issue.
We did have some issues with other places, Tar Creek, for example. I think people just — they have been dealing with it…
That was Oklahoma.
Yes, that was in Oklahoma. It's been so long they have been kind of fighting this fight, that they just are kind of done with talking about it, it sounds like.
Claire, this comes at a time when there's a lot of questions in this country about journalism and whether journalists are honest, whether journalists are doing work that people can believe in and trust.
What does this say to you about that, having worked on this?
I have learned that it's really important for journalists to spend time with their sources and spend time in the communities that they are going to be covering, especially if the communities are different.
When I was in Ringwood, New Jersey, I was working with the Ramapough Lenape Indian community there. And after talking to them a long time, explaining to them how journalism works, how we were going to be filming, and that we did our research, and we were going to uphold the highest standards, that's when they started trusting us and understanding that it's important for them to talk about their issues, because, otherwise, nothing will change.
So, finally, Jasmine, as you think about going into journalism, when you finish graduate school, do you come away from something like this feeling it's more important for you to do this kind of work, or not?
I definitely do.
And I think something like this that is really able to kind of take a deep dive on an issue like this, I think these are the kinds of stories that people really believe that you have done your homework, that you do know what you're talking about, because if you are able to look at the whole country, talk to hundreds of people, and really spend time with people from all different areas of the country, it's really hard for someone to say, that's not real.
It's such a treat to be here to see this work that you all are doing at the Cronkite School up close.
Thank you so much for the work you did on the documentary, and thank you for talking with us.
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