New Film Deftly Indicts Public Health Regulators
By Katie O'Reilly
It started with a text from Mom. In January 2014, documentarian Cullen Hoback received word from his mother that a chemical spill had left 300,000 West Virginians living in a swath of coal country known as "Chemical Valley"—so dubbed because it houses the nation's largest concentration of chemical plants—with foul-smelling drinking water. The source was a rusting tank owned by a chemical company with the you-can't-make-this-stuff-up name of Freedom Industries, and the substance leaking into Chemical Valley's waterways was MCHM, a detergent from coal.
Though raised in California, Hoback had enjoyed idyllic childhood visits to see relatives in West Virginia, so he hopped on the next flight out of Los Angeles to Charleston, West Virginia, his camera in tow. The creator of 2013's Terms and Conditions May Apply, about the spurious ways in which online service providers collect and use users' information, Hoback was hoping to chronicle the crisis in West Virginia and get to the bottom of why MCHM was producing such a noxious smell. He wanted to further inform citizens of oft-overlooked risks to which they are exposed through quotidian actions such as signing onto Facebook or sipping water from the tap.
More than three years later, he emerged with an ambitious film that's far more national in scope. Hyrax Films' What Lies Upstream positions the recent water catastrophes in West Virginia and Flint, Michigan, as springboards to discuss the systemic—and often shocking—lack of oversight for the water we all drink, bathe in and cook with. And the horror movie-esque title couldn't be more appropriate for a film about a system so tragically broken.
What Lies Upstream premiered in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, and as of tomorrow is streaming on demand. It reveals how and why government regulators from the EPA and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) tend to defer to the companies they're supposed to regulate, and why covering up public health crises can behoove regulators' careers. It shows how easy it is for corporations to sidestep rules and under-test chemicals, and—through a jaw-dropping scene in which Hoback depicts industry lobbyists blatantly gutting laws originally designed to hold companies accountable—highlights the fallacy of legislative "fixes."
On camera, Hoback talks to angry West Virginians who say they'll defend coal until its dying day, but that they at least expect their water to be safe. He talks to whistleblowers. He digs through records to prove how infrequently safety checks are performed, and that tens of thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act go uninvestigated in West Virginia and other states each year. Perhaps most hauntingly, the film illustrates the increasingly politicized nature of science, the various ways data gets manipulated to the point that it's "fake science" (the producer of MCHM, for instance, barely has any data on the substance's effect on humans), and why such a phenomenon is every bit as damaging to our nation as fake news.
Hoback documents the anguished community meetings, the communities already besieged by coal-related cancers, and the glaring lack of answers from the officials supposedly in place to protect people. A nuanced and character-driven film, What Lies Upstream's fact-based exploration shows that such problems are as tied to human nature as they are to systemic flaws. Viewers meet Dr. Rahul Gupta, who begins the movie as the outspoken executive director of the local health department. Shortly after the spill, he's shown sitting on a concerned residents' panel alongside renowned citizen-activist Erin Brockovich, who to raucous applause claims she's never seen a health official stand stand up for the people like Gupta had. But as Gupta rises in stature and becomes the state's commissioner of Health and Human Resources, he's less of a dogged champion for public health, and becomes rather bureaucratically hamstrung, self-censored—effectively silenced by the political machine. Meanwhile Randy Huffman, who starts the film as the industry-friendly secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection, leaves the job, partially based on extended exposure to unsuspecting citizens' woes—among them birth and developmental defects, skin problems and yet more cancer.
Hoback is a filmmaker who relies on his own on-screen investigative methods (he takes it upon himself to test the quality of the river Freedom Industries contaminates), and quietly confrontational probing (in one scene, Hoback hijacks the mic at a water company PR party to tell guests what's really in their water), to produce answers. His often surprising film clearly synthesizes complex information about the seedy underbelly of governmental administration. To learn more about what concerned citizens can do to protect themselves and their communities, and ways to better navigate systemic shortcomings, Sierra called up the intrepid documentarian.
SIERRA: What do you hope viewers take away from your film?
Cullen Hoback: My hope is that people think a bit differently every time they drink from the tap, and also think harder about what they flush down the drain. I also hope it reminds us all to question our trust in our scientific agencies and demand more from them—because we need our environmental policemen to be doing their jobs. We're in a complicated period right now because the EPA is being wildly dismantled, but at the same time, it wasn't really doing its job before. So, it's a very troubling problem to try and solve. Do we look in the future to an EPA whose regulators are actually incentivized to do their jobs, where there's actually a culture of enforcement? We have to demand more from the people who are supposed to be our shepherds. And I think people should fight locally—the federal level is there as a safety net. They're supposed to step up when baseline protections are not being followed, but as we saw in West Virginia and Flint, when we ask them to step up, they tend to go out of their way not to.
Why exactly do you think the people charged with regulating environmental and public health tend to distance themselves from such crises?
Because they don't want to look like they're not doing their jobs; they're too busy protecting their reputations. You see in the film that the EPA has showed its willingness to manufacture science to protect its often failed policies. The flavor of the science the EPA is forced to create often comes down to the will of political appointees. Especially under Trump, we're seeing independent advisory boards gutted and replaced with industry insiders who turn science into red-vs.-blue issues. For a scientific agency to develop fake science and propagandize science undermines everything. When someone's salary depends on them not understanding something, they're probably not going to understand it. It's really frightening, but we have to educate ourselves, and make sure it doesn't muddy science so fully.
And the problem is partially our fault. The public needs to accept the fact that some bad things will be found, and not panic every time something goes wrong. Because that makes them not want to tell us—they don't want the fallout. That's when the cover-ups happen. No one wants to get yelled at by their boss or fired. But, they of course shouldn't be cherry-picking what's important and what's not. We need to start developing a line of communication between the scientists and the public. It's not achievable right away to change how things are done at the federal level, but separating politics from scientists, and coming up with ways to give these agencies more accountability, is a doable thing. Let's get the regulations we do have enforced, and then work from there.
What was the most shocking thing you learned about government regulators' relationships to the companies they're supposed to supervise?
The list of shocking things that now feel normal is long. But I'm probably mostly shocked that regulators often trust coal, oil and gas companies to self-report their use of resources. It's like asking the mafia, "How many taxes did you pay this year?"
Did the process of creating this film make you fear for your own health?
On National Geographic's recent "happy places" survey, Charleston came in dead last. I certainly felt the depressive malaise that seems to have taken hold there, but I wasn't really worried about my physical health. I mean, I was in and out for about a year. When I talked to the scientist who revealed that MCHM was far more toxic than the public had previously been led to believe, he was shocked that I'd been showering in that water for months. But you have people living there for decades, and any potential consequences felt far less risky than what a lot of journalists subject themselves to.
In terms of drinking, I only drink alcohol now [laughs]—quadruple-filtered hard grain alcohol. But in all serious, every time I drink water now, I think, "What the hell is in this?" You can always try to make better and safer personal decisions, but we can only control so much. In terms of food, for instance, you can shop locally all you want for carefully raised eggs and chickens that grew up with friends, but then you have to travel, and you go out to a restaurant, and you have no idea. The same is true with water—the problem can't be fixed with a filter. If you can afford a better system, that's great, but solutions have to be holistic and systemic. Everyone will be protected when we finally change the way we treat our water, and our soil, too. Because that's what ends up in our waterways. I'd love to see a national Clean Soil Act go into effect, but we'd need regulators to actually enforce it, too.
What was it like to meet Erin Brockovich?
Erin is full of energy and wildly passionate and charismatic. Anytime you meet somebody who's been such a champion—who's developed the strength to stand up against powerful figures and corporations and politicians, time and again—it's invigorating and inspiring. She's a cool lady and I tip my hat to her. I hope there are more people in the future who follow in her footsteps—whose investigative curiosity and intuition lead them to take agencies to task, to ask questions and hold them accountable. Remember, anyone can go out with a camera and seek out politicians. Generally speaking, government buildings are open, and cameras have the power to light up concerns and make them public.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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