‘Coal Ash Stories’ tour coming to Durham

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 04:21 PM

A coalition of environmental groups has responded to the February spill of coal ash from a retired power plant into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina, with a series of film screenings about coal-related pollution. Organizers want viewers of “Coal Ash Stories” screenings to lobby state legislators for stricter regulation of coal ash.

N.C. WARN and other environmental groups will present eight screenings of “Coal Ash Stories” at different locations in the state. One of those screenings comes to Durham Tuesday night at Motorco Music Hall.
Working Films, a Wilmington-based non-profit that links documentary filmmakers to groups advocating for social issues, had been working with different organizations on this issue, said Kristin Henry, spokesperson for Working Films. When the ash spilled from a stormwater pipe at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station, Working Films pulled together a coalition of groups, who worked to pull together documentaries for “Coal Ash Stories,” Henry said. In addition to N.C. WARN, other groups sponsoring the screenings are Appalachian Voices, the N.C. Conservation Network, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. 
Coal ash is what’s left over after the burning of coal to produce power. Coal ash contains contaminants such as arsenic, selenium and cadmium.
The February spill “has really shined a light on what is going on,” said Nick Wood, organizing director for Durham-based N.C. WARN. His group and participating organizations “have known about this problem, and now everybody does,” he said.
Four short documentaries comprise “Coal Ash Stories.” One of the films,
“Downwind and Downstream: With Power Comes Responsibility,” produced by Carly Calhoun and Sam Despeaux, contains interviews David Merryman, riverkeeper, N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison and other constituents along the Catawba River, a water source for the Charlotte area. They and their colleagues discuss the amount of arsenic and other contaminants flowing into the river from coal ash pits from nearby power plants. The influence of the utility companies makes the creation of tougher regulation difficult, Harrison says. She likens current lax regulation to a “license to poison our citizens.”
The organization Earthjustice produced the film “An Ill Wind,” which chronicles the health effects of coal ash from the Reid Gardner Power Station in Nevada on the Paiute people on the Moapa River Indian Reservation. The Paiute have responded to the pollution by advocating for tougher federal law, and by creating a solar power plant on the reservation.
“Coal Ash Chronicles,” a work in progress by filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn (scheduled for a 2015 release), looks at the effects of coal ash pollution in Festus, Missouri; Fairbanks, Alaska; Perry County, Alabama; Pines, Indiana; and Cheshire, Ohio. Appalachian Voices produced “At What Price?,” a film about the health and environmental effects of coal ash from Duke Energy’s Belew’s Creek coal-fired power plant on the people of Stokes County, North Carolina.
A Duke Energy spokesperson said the company is aware of public concern about coal ash. “We have put forth an aggressive plan to address ash basins in the state that relies on fact and science to protect the environment,” Erin Culbert of Duke Energy corporate communications stated in an email. “We recognize there are a number of perspectives in this important issue, and we are working through a public process to determine the best solution for North Carolina,” Culbert stated.
At the screenings, viewers can sign a letter, or write one of their own, addressed to state legislators, to encourage tougher regulation of coal ash pollution, Wood said. “On a statewide level, it’s never been more of a high profile issue than it is now,” he said.