In February 2014, a storm water pipe below a massive Duke Energy coal ash impoundment failed, spilling 39,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River. With the Dan River coal ash spill fresh on the minds of North Carolinians, and as controversy grew around Duke Energy’s ties to the NC Governor and state regulators, clean water had become a top concern of residents across the state. In quick response, Working Films initiated partnerships with leading state and national organizations to put together a program that could answer questions about coal ash in NC. We worked through spring to co-develop Coal Ash Stories, identifying media, developing shared goals and resources, and coordinating the local efforts.
Four short films were used in eight cities around the state to educate citizens and draw public and political attention to the toxic impact of the disaster. The films include An Ill Wind, At What Cost?, Coal Ash Chronicles (work-in-progress), Downwind and Downstream.
Events took place in Asheville, Belews Creek, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Winston-Salem. In each location, one or more local groups co-hosted the event, tailoring the program and goals to the local communities, especially where coal ash ponds are threatening the local drinking water supply.
Local host organizations included 350 Triangle, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Charlotte Environmental Action, Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Water for NC, Durham People’s Alliance, Frack Free NC Alliance, Fund for Democratic Communities, Greenpeace NC, League of Conservation Voters NC, Mountain People’s Assembly, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, New Hanover County NAACP, Sierra Club Cape Fear Group, Sierra Club Capital Group, Sierra Club Foothills Group, Sierra Club Headwaters Group and Triangle Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Below are some highlights.
Appalachian Voices hosted the event in Belews Creek, a rural community near Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station. The goal of the event was to help community members realize that they’re a part of a larger fight and are not alone in the struggle. Organizer Sarah Kellogg stated, “There was a woman who is the daughter of one of our most outspoken community members who has never wanted to be involved, but after the movie showing she was ready to speak out.”
The Durham event was co-hosted by Durham People’s Alliance, NC WARN, and Sierra Club Headwaters Group. County Commissioner Frances Blalock attended as a viewer, and let the organizers know that just the night before, the Person County commissioners voted 5-0 to pass a moratorium on coal ash that includes both the transport and disposal of the material. The organizers welcomed her to give the update to the audience and say a few words before the screening.
In Raleigh, the Q&A included Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices; John Wagner, Frack Free NC and Haw River Assembly; State Representative Pricey Harrison from Greensboro; and was facilitated by main organizer Karen Bearden, 350 Triangle. Karen met folks that heard about the program on The State of Things radio show the day before and had missed the earlier program in Durham, so they drove to Raleigh to attend. State Representative Pricey Harrison, who appears in Downwind and Downstream, gave context to the legislative situation and how she has been trying to get a coal ash bill passed since 2008. She emphasized how corporations’ money and influence makes it hard for legislators to get strong bills passed and urged the audience to make their voices heard.
Each event was strong and well attended, with each location meeting, and three locations exceeding, the hosts’ expectations for turn out. In just a week and a half, the events reached 400 people. According to our audience surveys, 98% of attendees are now willing to speak out on coal ash. 90% better understand the issues and have an increased interest in being involved. There are some indications that we were able to reach beyond the choir, with ¾ of audiences not already affiliated with a group or organization, as indicated on sign in sheets. Also, a high number of zip codes outside the immediate vicinity of screening locations on sign in sheets indicated that audience members were willing to travel to learn more and participate.
Our state and local partners loved the event format– with 30 minutes of media, there was ample time for an interactive discussion and a call to action. All of our local hosts reported being very pleased with the help from Working Films and felt very well supported.
The Coal Ash Stories events were co-hosted by several groups whom we’ve partnered with on Moral Movies, including NAACP branches as well as Durham People’s Alliance and the Fund for Democratic Communities. This gives some indication that we are fostering cross-issue support from organizations that have not traditionally worked on coal ash or related environmental issues. This will be an emphasis of our efforts going forward, building on the many state and local partnerships we’ve established through our Moral Movies series.
Coal Ash Stories received broad press coverage, including the radio show WUNC’s The State of Things. The show spent two-thirds of their program on coal ash, talking with Filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn of Coal Ash Chronicles as well as WUNC’s capital reporter Jorge Valencia about the details of the event, controversy around the regulatory response and the latest on the coal ash legislation. The screenings happened to coincide with the short legislative session, further raising the attention of the issues. Other press articles included Asheville’s Mountain Xpress, Durham’s Herald Sun, and Wrightsville Beach’s Lumina News.
We are eager to build on the momentum of the initial tour in NC, as are our partners, who see screening events as a unique opportunity through which they can reach beyond their typical constituencies, raise awareness of the impacts of the spill and spur people to action. Coal ash will continue to be a major threat to public health and clean water in the state. As Amy Adams explained in an op-ed, “If the General Assembly really wanted to eliminate the threat posed by Duke Energy’s coal-ash storage ponds, it would have ordered an assessment of all 33 of the ponds and come up with specific instructions for the cleanup. Instead, lawmakers made cleanup mandatory for only four of them (all curiously close to the homes of powerful legislators) and left the details for the other 29 to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy – whose relationship over the years has been altogether too cordial.” In response to the still pending, yet insufficient coal ash bill, the Southern Environmental Law Center is continuing to take action for some of the communities under the Clean Water Act, though more is needed. We are now working with our partner groups to develop plans to continue the work with Coal Ash Stories to support the communities impacted by the spill and engage citizens across the state in addressing this important issue. Through the remainder of the year we will build on and extend the use of the films across North Carolina, as well as in new states, to raise awareness of coal ash threats and impacts and inspire greater engagement around these issues.