The water disaster in Flint, Michigan exposed the dangers of this country’s aging water system, and a new film premiering Wednesday, May 31 on PBS’ NOVA tells the mid-Michigan city’s “complex story.”
About 300 local residents saw the film already and found it “very powerful,” said Llewellyn Smith in a MSR phone interview. Smith wrote, produced, and directed the one-hour film.
Poisoned Water features on-camera interviews with Miguel Del Toral, the EPA official who first publicly raised the alarm about lead in the Flint water system; LeeAnne Walters, a mother whose twin boys had been poisoned by the water; Virginia Tech Chemical Engineer Marc Edwards, who used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire documents and discover the culpability of scientists and engineers from state and federal agencies; and an independent research team from Virginia Tech, who tested the water and distributed hundreds of sampling kits to Flint residents to test their own water.
(See a preview of the documentary below)
The film, narrated by Scandal‘s Joe Morton, shows how a state-appointed emergency manager authorized the switch of the municipal water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which would trigger “a chemical chain reaction with devastating results.” Those results included thousands of local children being exposed to lead poisoning, and two possible outbreaks of Legionnaire Disease that claimed 12 lives.
Even though scientists now have declared that it is safe for Flint residents to drink water that’s filtered, “So many people have been harmed and traumatized from this experience,” stated Smith, an award-winning filmmaker. “Some of these people have been psychologically abused by it. There’s a powerful mistrust” of local and state officials, he noted.
Once a heavily industrial town, Flint for several decades has been besieged with plant closings and foreclosures — “struggling with poverty and violence, neglect, loss of jobs, sturdy housing stock, loss of tax base and population. All of these things have really created a condition that has made the city very, very fragile,” said Smith.
“What happened in Flint is really the tip of a long historical iceberg of racial injustice, economic injustice, institutional racism, neglect and politics that maligned the fabric of life throughout the city,” added Smith.
The Flint residents are the real heroes of the story, said Smith. “The ‘scientists’ who found [the tainted water] were LeeAnn Walters and the people who were working with her who really exposed it — the citizens called [out] the situation,” he said.
“She was a little bit standoffish” upon first meeting Walters, he recalled. “She had lots of people come down wanting to talk to her about this and that. I think she was not sure how far to trust us.”
But eventually Walters opened up to him. “I found her to be extraordinary warm and generous, very devoted to Flint and her family. She is one of the few people who are really deeply motivated to figure out for herself what is going on here. She is a remarkable person — very warm, very smart. She is the salt of the earth.”
When asked if what happened in Flint is similar to what happened in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, Smith responded, “I think there are some interesting similarities. You had this tremendous storm that hit New Orleans, but what made the storm even more devastating and more destructive was the level of poverty and segregation, disenfranchisement and neglect that had happened, especially [to the] African American communities.”
In both New Orleans and Flint, “You got two communities that were destroyed economically and socially in terms of jobs and poverty…then on top of that you have this disaster,” said Smith.
Smith said he and his film crew began work last August and completed “a few weeks ago.” “Some of the biggest challenges [were] really getting folk to talk with us. People have been in and out of Flint for months and months, doing this story and that story. We wanted to do a thorough investigative piece. We tried to not just tell the story but also tell the story that recognizes their character.”
“Flint is not unusual,” said the filmmaker, because America has an outdated water infrastructure: “You are talking about millions and millions of [underground] pipes around the country that have to be identified, dug up and replaced. It is not a cheap process to do,” he pointed out.
“What happened in Flint could be happening right now in many other cities. We have so many lead pipes that are so fragile, it could happen anywhere right now,” concluded Smith.
NOVA: Poisoned Water premiered Wednesday May 31 on PBS (TPT2 in the Twin Cities). Check local listings for repeat showings or go here to watch it online.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.