A new documentary wades into the issues around the pollution and protection of Pennsylvania’s waterways.
The film, from Point Park University’s School of Communication Environmental Journalism program and WQED Multimedia in Pittsburgh, is called “Downstream.” Written and produced by award-winning journalist Gina Catanzarite, the film highlights threats to clean water like acid mine drainage leaking from abandoned coal mines, industrial pollution along rivers, sewage overflow when it rains, and the lead in old pipes. Kara Holsopple talked with her recently to learn more about the film.
Kara Holsopple: Tell me about some of the threats to Pennsylvania’s waterways that are featured in the documentary.
Gina Catanzarite: One of the things that we talk about a lot in “Downstream” is acid mine drainage. Pennsylvania has more acid mine features that are contaminating waterways and land than any other state in the country. A third of abandoned mine reclamation sites in this country are in Pennsylvania.
Some of these mines were dug out a century ago, before there was regulation. When they finished the job, they walked away. These exposed areas fill up with water and any of the metals and contaminants that were in those mines, that were dug and dredged out of the Earth, are sitting there and washed away with the water. So, iron mixed with oxygen is going to turn the water orange. Aluminum is going to have a chemical reaction–you’ll see it as white patches or bluish-green patches.
It is everywhere and it’s a real problem for the state. And it’s something that has a downstream effect. Not only is it seeping into our water, costing us more money to clean, it’s killing the fish; it’s toxic to wildlife. There were streams that were completely orange. There was no life. You didn’t see a fish, you didn’t see a flea. Nothing could survive in such an acidic environment. And then you think that water is washing downstream…where else is it going? What other states and cities downstream of us are being contaminated, too?
KH: Acid mine drainage is a long-term problem. A lot of us who grew up in western Pennsylvania are pretty familiar with those orange streams. What did you learn about how these problems are being addressed in the process of making this documentary?
GC: We worked a lot with Trout Unlimited, and they said something that struck me as profound. They said, ‘When we talk about reclaiming streams, or cleaning water, we talk about success in terms of feet not miles.’ I really have a respect for how hard it is to ensure that these impacts, wherever they’re coming from — industry, our own lawns and the chemicals that we put on them — the challenge of ensuring that one foot is going to be cleaned, and then what do we do to make sure that all of the other feet are cleaned.
KH: A lot of us have heard about some of these issues like sewage overflow into rivers, but seeing it as people are talking about it in the film, really adds another layer of understanding even for someone like me who covers these issues regularly. Can you talk about environmental filmmaking as a medium?
GC: It’s very difficult to make a film that’s about the environment and our interaction with it because we don’t want to stage anything. We know a body of evidence exists. But where do you find it? And how long are you willing to wait for it to show up so that you can tape it? It’s difficult to show something that is a process, like this nutrient poisoning we’re experiencing with all the human and agricultural waste. Maybe I see one sewer overflowing, but was that a one-off? How do I convey that this happens over time?
KH: I was actually thinking of it the opposite way. It seems like proof to me. You hear about sewage overflow, but you don’t really know exactly where it goes or what it looks like… it just goes right into the river. But you can actually see the portals in the film, and it becomes a reality.
GC: It does become a reality. There’s a smell to sewage overflow that we can’t capture. There is a vibrancy to being on the water that doesn’t always translate. So shooting it feels very different. We hope that we show enough in our action. We show it from the water, not from the land, to give people a true sense of being there.
We were with a woman who’s swimming in the rivers. So we made the choice to be on the water with her, so we had a canoe operator. I felt that it was really important to be right next to her as she swam in this water that people have such a fear of being in.
KH: And why did you want to tell the story of all the topics that you’ve taken on in your long career?
GC: I was fascinated by the fact that Pennsylvania has more running water than any other state in the country except Alaska. And that statistic–83,000 miles of rivers and streams and tributaries–I thought there’s a lot of story in that water. And there turned out to be a lot of story in that water. I felt great being the person who was learning about it the same way I hope an audience member, who knows nothing, can watch “Downstream” and be introduced to the topic, too.
KH: We hear from researchers, environmentalists, citizen scientists in the film and each of them has their own piece of the story. Each has a call to action, whether it’s saving trout or inviting people to get to know the rivers better. Is this film a call to action?
GC: I think that the best journalism tells people information that is reliable and has a heart to it so we can understand the emotion, not just the data.
But at the end, it will let them make their own decision. I hope that people become advocates for the water and realize that [their] vote will matter in policies that affect the water and [their] own actions affect the water. And while I don’t say it in the documentary, one of the old adages that kept coming through my mind is, ‘no single raindrop ever takes responsibility for the flood.’ No one person ever thinks ‘what difference could my actions make with the water,’ but every action is cumulative. Then it all rushes downstream and it affects somebody else, too.
KH: A question that’s posed by the narrator in the beginning of the film is, “Will Pennsylvania serve as a clean water model for the rest of the country? Or will it settle for being a cautionary tale?” Do you feel like you have an answer for that now, or a better idea of the way things are going?
GC: I don’t have an answer for whether or not we’ll be a success story or a cautionary tale. I met people who want us to be a success story. When I talked to people about what I was doing, and they were shocked by some of the data I was revealing, they wanted to be a success story, too. I am from McKees Rocks. I live right above Neville Island which has a lot of old industry and infrastructure. I see a lot of people who think that there are short-term financial benefits, and the water can be sacrificed for them.
I don’t know if we’ll be a cautionary tale. That really relies on policy and putting those policies into practice, and even coming up with stiffer penalties and laws that are a little bit more current. A lot of these clean stream laws and policies that were made around them for what’s acceptable industrial pollution haven’t been changed in decades. The fines for violating them aren’t even that stiff, so they feel more like a tax for doing business than a deterrent for doing it again.
Every time I met somebody who’s doing something great, you turn around and see somebody who’s polluting the water that they just fought so hard to clean.
KH: Thank you very much for talking with me.
GC: I really appreciate it. I appreciate any attention people could bring to the waters because it’s what sustains us.
“Downstream,” written and produced by Gina Catanzarite, premieres Thursday, October 11th at 8:00PM on WQED television in Pittsburgh. There’s also a free showing that night at the Center for Media Innovation .More info here.
The film was funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also supports The Allegheny Front.