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Documentary Tests the Waters of Virginia

A new film is making the rounds in Virginia – its producers using this state as a test of how much difference their investigative work might make.  What Lies Upstream will be shown at the Byrd Theater in Richmond Sunday, August 27 at 1:30, at the Grandin Theater in Roanoke on Wednesday August 30th at 7:15 and at the Alamo Draft House in Charlottesville Thursday, August 31 at 7 pm, with each showing followed by a panel discussion. 

Filmmaker Cullen Hoback had relatives who lived in West Virginia, so when he heard about a chemical spill in the river that supplied Charleston’s drinking water, he was worried.

“When this contamination happened back in 2014, I was just confused why there wasn’t more national attention, at least in the early stage,” he recalls.

People only realized that the water was contaminated because it smelled funny – like licorice.  There was no official announcement for several hours, and for weeks after the spill, locals were forced to drink bottled water.

Hoback wanted to know how this happened, so he called cinematographer Vincent Sweeney, a native of Roanoke, and the two headed for West Virginia.

“I imagined, originally, that this would be a two-week long project," he says. "I would go to West Virginia, I would get to the bottom of it, and I would be done.”

In fact, the project took three years and would lead to other places – like Flint, Michigan where water was contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

“This ended up being an investigation that spiraled all the way to the highest levels of government including the EPA and the CDC.  What started as an investigation into a spell ended up being an indictment of the entire system meant to protect drinking water.”

The film – What Lies Upstream -- premiered in January. It got great reviews, but Hoback and Sweeney were not content.  They wanted to see change, so they started checking water in another state.

“We’re going to be discussing the results we got from water and soil in Virginia,” he says/

They’ll share their findings this week in Richmond, Winchester, Roanoke and Charlottesville after showing the film, and hope that here they can make a difference.

“What happens in Virginia for us will really determine  what we're able to do in other states around the country.”

Frankly, Hoback adds, this country isn’t doing enough to protect its water, and major changes are needed, but in this area, Virginia has been something of a leader.

“Interestingly, Virginia is one of the most progressive states when it comes to land application of sewage sludge," he explains. "That the material that settles out of wastewater treatment plants – so it’s human feces and every chemical known to man.”

And because the state is fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, he figures this is the place to see if learning about risks to water quality will lead to changes in policy and long-term protection of our rivers and streams.

“Regardless of where people fall in the political spectrum, water is something people can agree on.”

Hoback reports West Virginia put new laws on the books in 2014, but as soon as the public stopped watching, lawmakers chipped away at those protections.  The film also reminds viewers that oversight at the local level has real impact on our lives.