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Film documentaries inspire coal ash activism

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Jengo’s Playhouse hosted a full house June 19 for a screening of four short documentaries exploring coal ash concerns in communities across the country.

The films stopped by seven North Carolina cities before the screening in Wilmington. The tour was coordinated by Working Films, a Wilmington nonprofit that aims to inspire activism through nonfiction film. Working Films co-director Molly Murphy said the films played for packed audiences in every city.

“People want to find out: what’s coal ash? How does it impact my water? How does it impact my environment? What’s going to be done to make sure this isn’t a risk to the air I breathe, the water I drink?” Murphy said.

Murphy said the organization became interested in coordinating the series about coal ash after the Feb. 2 Dan River spill. Yet as evidenced in the films, communities in North Carolina and beyond have been concerned about coal ash for years before the spill.

In “At What Cost?” residents near Duke Energy’s plant in Belews Creek, N.C., shared fears that unusual cases of cancer and illness in the community could be linked to ash contamination. An excerpt from the forthcoming “Coal Ash Chronicles” explored how lack of coal ash regulation impacted communities in Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee.

The Cape Fear Sierra Club, New Hanover NAACP and Cape Fear River Watch hosted the screening. Following the films, Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette answered questions, while Cape Fear Sierra Club’s Pauline Endo led participants in a letter-writing campaign addressed to Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover.

Burdette and Endo discussed SB 729, the latest coal ash cleanup bill to be introduced to the state legislature. Both Burdette and Endo were critical of the bill for not requiring all coal ash to be moved away from waterways and into lined landfills.

Endo said she picked Catlin as the target of the letter-writing campaign because of his voting record on environmental issues, his career in environmental engineering and his role in the House environment committee.

Christine Ellis, river advocate with the Winyah Rivers Foundation in Conway, S.C., explained how community pressure led utility company Santee Cooper to clean up its coal ash ponds. Ellis, who was then Waccamaw Riverkeeper, attributed their success to public pressure from three lawsuits and a deal the utility was able to strike with a recycling facility to use the ash for industrial products like concrete.

“It’s working. They’re ahead of schedule, ahead of budget,” Burdette said. “The [company] says this is a triple win. It’s a win for us, it’s a win for the people and it’s a win for the environment.”

Endo said 15 letters were turned in after the program, adding that some people chose to contact lawmakers via email or phone.

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