Philly environmental filmmaker takes on the issue of Pennsylvania’s acid mine drainage

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A still from “A River Reborn.

A still from “A River Reborn."

Pennsylvania has 5,600 miles of dead waterways, polluted by the state’s coal mining industry. Cleaning up these rivers and streams would cost millions of dollars. WHYY’s Susan Phillips spoke to Philadelphia filmmaker Ben Kalina, who just produced a documentary that looks at how one river in the western part of the state was brought back to life.

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Hi, Ben, welcome to WHYY.

Thank you. Thanks for having me, Susan.

Your new documentary, “A River Reborn,” focuses on the Little Conemaugh River and how coal mining pollution ruined it. Tell us first off: Where is this river?

Sure, the Little Conemaugh is about, say, 10 or 15 miles outside of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. So that’s sort of west central and a little bit south in Pennsylvania, near the Allegheny Mountains. And I think some people might know of this river, not by name, but from the great Johnstown Flood, which was maybe the largest man-made natural disaster of its kind when it happened in the late 1800s.

Interesting, so it’s the same river involved in that flood. It also suffered from acid mine drainage, a huge problem in Pennsylvania’s coal country — I’ve seen these rivers, the water is deep orange and stinks like sulfur, and nothing survives, they’re dead rivers … Let’s take a listen to Rick Orris, he’s featured in your film as someone who grew up along the Little Conemaugh.

“When I was a little child, I could fish the little cricks, when I was 5 or 6. By the time I was 10, all the fish were gone, the pollution had gotten so bad.”

This is one of the things that’s so interesting to me about this story is in many ways … it’s a bit of a disaster story, but it’s also really a kind of a hopeful story. And it points to solutions, which I think is so important at this time. But acid mine drainage in a lot of cases, in most cases, is a result of mines that were abandoned before the Clean Water Act was passed, because up until that time, you could basically mine for coal or for anything else, really. And just when you were done or you decided you couldn’t extract any more resources, you could just walk away without sealing the mines up or doing any remediation. So a lot of these mines over time just would fill up with rainwater. You can get this kind of picture: a hole in the ground that fills up with water and overflows. And as it overflows, it carries out all those heavy metals, which increase the concentration in those rivers … to a level that can’t, where they can’t support life.

Right, so these heavy metals like iron and manganese lower the pH, making the water acidic, and kill all the bugs at the bottom of the food chain. The solution that you talk about in your film was a multimillion-dollar project. Tell us about that.

Yeah, I mean, it’s really expensive, this is not a simple solution. It looks like an enormous aboveground pool, where you’re basically mixing into that water lime and other kinds of neutralizing elements to get that water back to a healthy level so you can discharge it once again into the streams.

Just to be clear, this cleanup process has to happen in perpetuity. Right? It’s forever.

Yeah, I think I would hope that at some point we figure out some way to kind of move beyond that. But at this point, I don’t see that on the horizon.

Right, big commitment, big money. So, you’ve done a lot of films for PBS on global climate change, what made you turn to such a local story?

There’s just a real sadness to the fact that people turn their back on these rivers that are actually just these gorgeous places that should be full of life. And so when I found this story, I thought, here’s a chance to talk about a story where there’s actually a hopeful outcome. And not just because it’s important in the case of these rivers or this river in particular, but also because I think we really, we need to focus on that more generally in our own storytelling, the stories we tell ourselves, because it’s easy to get really, really desperate about climate and environment-related issues. But we have to remind ourselves that when we decide something is worth tackling and fixing, like we have incredible capacity to do that.

Yeah, this beat can be pretty depressing [laughter] … Another question I have for you is, coal mining has been on a rapid decline over the past decades. But right now, we’re seeing a new full-steam-ahead push for renewables like solar, wind, electric cars. Do you think in the future we’ll be dealing with environmental destruction from any of these sources that we haven’t thought about, or at least, we’re not talking about?

That’s a great question, and it’s one that I think more and more about. And I think … there’s no doubt that we have to move very quickly to sources of energy that are, that do not produce greenhouse gases. However, electric cars require batteries. The lithium that needs to go into those batteries and the other metals are incredibly toxic as well. And even just finding those metals in order to bring those technologies to scale requires a massive amount of extraction or disruption of other delicate ecosystems. Really use this as maybe a cautionary tale to say as we look to dig ourselves out of this very deep hole we’re in and do it very quickly, we can’t just ignore the fact that all of these forms of power and electricity take resources, and those resources will require a certain amount of foresight in terms of how we deal with them, how we extract them, how we recycle them or whatever we do, or else we will be looking at a whole other set of problems. One hundred years from now or sooner.

Right, exactly. Thanks for talking with us, Ben.

Sure, happy to. Thanks for having me.

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Ben Kalina’s film “A River Reborn” will air Thursday night at 7:30 on WHYY-TV 12 and be available to screen online at whyy.org for the next 30 days. Kalina spoke with WHYY News climate and environment reporter Susan Phillips.

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