ABC News, My Toxic Backyard Screening, WLOS
5:30pm news May 10, 2014
ABC News story on My Toxic Backyard WLOS
6:30pm news December 18, 2011
Five years ago, filmmaker Katie Damien searched for a home to buy in South Asheville off Mills Gap Road. "Prices were so much lower than in other places in Asheville," says Damien, a five-time Southeast Regional Emmy winner. "But my friend said, 'Don't buy there. There's something wrong: People are getting cancer.' I stopped looking, but I couldn't stop thinking about the people living there. It haunted me."
The haunting resulted in Damien's first feature-length film, My Toxic Backyard, an hour-long documentary about the South Asheville Superfund site leaking toxic chemicals into the ground water surrounding the area.
CTS Corporation, a global manufacturer of electronic components, purchased the site in 1959, closing it in 1986. But the Environmental Protection Agency did not name it a Superfund site until 2012. The Superfund was established in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund) into law. The law enables the EPA to clean up hazardous waste sites.
The EPA first assessed the Asheville site in 1985, finding no evidence of contamination. In 1991, CTS itself notified the state of contamination, but EPA again signed off on the site. Residents believe that 74 cases of cancer have occurred with a mile of the site. And residents' complaints have kept EPA returning, each time finding more evidence of toxins in the ground water.
Damien's film focuses on several affected families: Aaron Penland, who opens the film by pointing to family members, victims of cancer appearing in a family movie, "a death video," he says; Tate MacQueen who moved his family into a tiny apartment to get them away from the water; and Shannon Mead whose constant illness forced her to miss the first seven years of her first child's life.
As the film proceeds, Damien highlights community meetings with EPA officials who appear puzzled by the residents' anger. She alternates such scenes with alarming pictures of toddlers running in sprinklers or drinking from icy water glasses.
Damien toiled on the film for five years, completing it in December 2013. "I thought it was going to be a one-year project," says Damien. "But I was shooting, editing, and doing the research and audio by myself."
For the final year, she was joined by others, including the film's editor, Jamie Byrd, also a filmmaker. "I was so tired, and I had collected so many interviews and so much information," says Damien. "Jamie breathed new life into the project. I was trying to pack in information, but she is more about heart and telling people's stories."
Damien invested more than $10,000 of her own to buy equipment she needed. And she raised $5,000 through Kickstarter, an organization that allows supporters to pledge money for creative work in return for small rewards such as a free ticket to a screening.
Now, she's busy submitting the film to festivals, accepted so far by The Thin Line Festival in Denton, Texas. And she's sending copies to state legislators who are deciding whether to loan Asheville the money to connect affected families to city water.
Damien wants the film to stir up questions about what's happening in our own back yards. "I feel like the society is so concerned about the economy, saying 'We'll deal with the environment once the economy comes back,'" she says. "But the longer we wait, the worse the environment will get."
Damien doesn't begrudge the money she's spent on the film: "Everyone contributed more than they were paid," she says. Besides, she didn't get into filmmaking to make money but to fuel her early passion. "I started when I was 12, making plays with my sister and cousins. And then my uncle gave me a movie camera. My first film was so bad I erased it, but I had so much fun. I thought, 'This is what I will do for the rest of my life.'"
After high school, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida native headed to the University of Central Florida, a place where film students can direct their own projects. Her first documentary — a film about Florida cowboys, Cowmen — won third prize at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. "I knew the cowboys probably wouldn't be around long, and I thought I should tell their story," she says.
Later, for five years, she worked in broadcasting on cruise ships, traveling the world. Then she followed her parents to Asheville, taking a job at WLOS, where she is Creative Services Producer.
Her next film is a comedy, One Hell of an Angel. "It's about an angel and demon forced to work together to help a washed-up rock star write a song to save the world," she says.
The theme's not surprising: For Damien, teamwork — and perseverance — are key to good filmmaking: "Asheville's great for independent filmmakers. People here open their doors. Still, it can be daunting and frustrating. So many films never get finished. You have to make an investment in yourself and trust your own work. And the end goal is to do the story justice."
Katie Damien’s documentary centers on a community in South Asheville, NC, where the drinking water is contaminated with deadly chemical runoff from a manufacturing plant that was abandoned decades ago. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has designated the former CTS Corporation plant a “Superfund” site—among the most toxic places in the U.S.—neither the EPA nor CTS has tried to contain the waste or provide safe drinking water to surrounding areas. In fact, the EPA documented high levels of the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE) but didn’t inform residents for years, even as dozens died of cancer. Given that their drinking water and even the air itself were fatally toxic, locals expected a cleanup. But the EPA responded with community meetings that were apparently designed to pacify homeowners, and the agency recommended endless re-evaluation and testing. Some of those interviewed believe themselves to be under government surveillance; they talk about evidence that the EPA not only dropped the ball but also withheld information, tried to obscure the link between TCE and the old CTS facility, and generally knuckled under to a wealthy multinational corporation. Damien uses an animated aerial map to show a shocking number of local fatalities, pointing out that the area is still under development, with new housing going up and being marketed to unsuspecting retirees. Frightening, suspenseful, and saddening (as Damien notes, one in four Americans lives within four miles of a Superfund site), this sobering documentary is highly recommended. Aud: C, P. (M. Puffer-Rothenberg)
In the late 90s, there was a boom in the David vs. Goliath subgenre of courtroom drama. Usually aimed at faceless, negligent corporations guilty of poisoning the environment, they were epitomized by films such as “The Rainmaker”, “Erin Brockovich”, and “A Civil Action”. Every one of them had scenes of lawyers meeting with the victims. They are always portrayed as destitute families in decaying houses. Their bodies decimated by the side effects of the contamination. The documentary “My Toxic Backyard” shows these families as they really exist.
Katie Damien’s film studies the residents of Asheville, North Carolina and more specifically those living within the 1 mile radius of an abandoned CTS Corporation manufacturing plant. While operational, the plant was guilty of dumping toxic chemicals, specifically trichloroethylene (an industrial solvent responsible for the true life story “A Civil Action” is based upon), contaminating the town’s water supply. The film opens with Asheville resident Aaron Penland watching a home movie and lamenting all the family members lost to cancer whose voices remain only on the recording. Since the closing of the plant, there have been over 70 reported cases of within that 1 mile radius. Cancer hangs over every townsperson and the entire film. So common that its eminent threat is mentioned with the nonchalance of getting a toothache. The area in Asheville is one of over 4000 “Superfund” sites in the US. Contaminated areas allotted money by the Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup. However, the process proves to be long and convoluted.
Damien’s filmmaking style recalls the grace of Barbara Kopple’s companion films “Harlan County USA” & “American Dream”. The townspeople are shown to be noble and intelligent. Since moving is not an option, they are forced to become experts in the law and the sluggish process to hold CTS accountable. Like children of a neglectful father, they have banded together against a common enemy. Considering the mounting death toll, they are remarkably calm and focused in their anger. All parties agree the situation demands attention, but the question of “when” goes frustratingly unanswered throughout the film.
No CTS corporation representative is ever interviewed in the film. No corporate office is invaded. No shareholder meeting interrupted. This is not that kind of documentary. This is a profile of people who just want what is fair. They aren’t looking for a fat settlement. They just want clean drinking water for their children and to be healthy enough to watch them grow up.
Paul Busetti (2014). My Toxic Backyard Rouge Cinema
I stumbled upon a little documentary film “My Toxic Backyard” that I thought was of interest to all. This particular story may not effect you, but it is effecting many and I am sure that there are many more stories like this across the country and even the world! Toxins in the air and the ground from old processing plants of different types. In this case it happened in Asheville, North Carolina at the site of what used to be an electroplating plant. Very high amounts of toxic chemicals remain years after the plant has been gone. Especially High levels of the solvent Trichloroethylene.
Tests conducted by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emergency-response team revealed 21,000 parts per billion of trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen. That’s 4,200 times the allowable limit for drinking water.
For years people who lived nearby and the people who worked at the plant were exposed to various chemicals and now many are fighting for their lives or have already lost the battle.
A young filmmaker Katie Damien was looking to buy a house when she heard about what appeared to be a really good deal.
She asked a friend to check into the property for her and when he found out where it was he told Katie to stay away. He had heard that there was something in the water there that was leaving the locals sick and in some cases they had died.
Many people would have just moved on and looked elsewhere, but Katie had to know more.
When she started researching the property she uncovered what others had been trying to cover up and she documented her discovery in an amazing feature length documentary film. “My Toxic Backyard” is her story detailing the problems and the mishandling of the situation in Asheville.
Using the stories of the people that live on a toxic waste dumping site in Asheville, North Carolina, this documentary examines environmental law, the effect of carcinogens on the body, and a community’s fight for safe drinking water.
Why is this important?
If you think this couldn’t happen to you, you need to see this documentary. The struggles that this community is still going through are just the examples being presented in a system that has failed them for decades. What if you found out you had cancer, then you discovered your water was contaminated, then you tried to sue the company responsible, but couldn’t? Then you fought to get the site, still leaking contaminates into the ground water, cleaned up and nothing happened. Then you tried to sell your house, but no one wanted to buy it. What would you do? What could you do?
Maybe by watching this film and hearing what these people have gone through will help others realize what they are smelling and tasting in there own homes. We often just except ailments, sickness, fatigue, when we should be finding out what causes it.
My Toxic Backyard exposes the hazards associated with chemicals leaking into groundwater, homes being built on or near these pieces of property and unsuspecting home owners living with the aftermath.
Stories like the one in Asheville need to be told, kudos goes out to Katie Damien for telling this story and hopefully opening the eyes of all of us and raising our awareness of the possible toxins that could be lurking in our own backyard!
As Katie told me “There’s a bunch of doom and gloom there, but I really think we can make changes that will safeguard our future. We can turn things around. It’ not too late to do something about the downward spiral we’re in. We as communities, as states, and as a nation can make the places we live safe for ourselves and future generations. We just have to want it more than we want a profit.
If you want to keep up with updates go to the My Toxic Backyard Facebook page .
Jeff Davis (2012). What’s in your backyard? Go Green America
"You turn on the tap for a drink of water, you never think that it could kill you.” Is your tap water safe to drink? A community in Asheville, NC thought so. They were wrong. Think this couldn’t happen to you?
Is your water safe? Everyone would assume their water is safe unless told otherwise. If toxic chemicals were leeching into the groundwater near your home how soon would you expect be notified of it? Days, weeks, months, years? The dumping of toxic chemicals by a manufacturing plant in this community was known for years. What wasn't known was how it was affecting the groundwater. In this case,it took a decade or more before it was generally known by the residents and was recognized as a hazard. It was not required to be disclosed in the buying and selling of property in the area.
When Emmy Award winning filmmaker Katie Damien returned from several years working aboard a cruise ship she wanted to settle down and buy a house in Asheville where her parents now live. Homes in Asheville can be rather pricey. She thought she had found a hidden treasure when she noticed a moderately priced home in a small community just outside Asheville. Feeling that it was too good to be true she did some investigating of her own and found this little oasis of affordable homes to be more of a nightmare than the home place that she dreamed of. The water is contaminated.
The dirty little secret is that the water there is contaminated. Toxic water. It had been a secret to most for several years. That's when Katie started documenting what was going on by interviewing the neighbors in the area and discovering the manufacturing plant that is believed to be the source of the contamination. Is the Environmental Protection Agency ready to step in and resolve the issue?
It appears the EPA does not have a lot of clout, or is it lack of concern, for the issue the residents in this area are facing. Otherwise, why isn't more being done to clean up this mess? Meeting after meeting with EPA facilitators has gone on with almost no progress in the cleanup occurring. Another decade has past since it was known by the residents that their groundwater contained a high level of carcinogens. Though the water is shown to contain many hundreds and even thousands of times the amount of contamination the EPA allows in safe drinking water they seem powerless to do anything about it.
Many people in this area have died of cancer or have had to undergo treatments for it. Sometimes it is not noticeable in the water, but it's there. Other times the smell and vapors from it are enough to make you cough when taking a shower. Inhalation and ingestion by water are the two main ways that a person can be exposed to the toxins. Without having a doctor to show direct causality between the water and disease nothing can be done to prove it is the water that caused the disease. There has been deception and cover-up in this case to try and keep it under wraps for many years, apparently for commercial reasons.
If the problem had been fixed 20-30 years ago it would have been much cheaper to fix it. Will the residents of this community get any relief from this toxic water? Some progress is being made after years of EPA committee meeting, appeals to the state of North Carolina, and trips to Washington to argue on behalf of the landowners. It can't come fast enough. A plan to have many of the homes connected to city water has been made but is still awaiting approval.
This is a very good film though it's not pleasant to see what has happened to these people and what they have had to suffer with through polluted water, loss of family members, and the fight to get someone to take responsibility for it. It is a learning experience, and it never lost my attention throughout the film. My Toxic Backyard will soon be screened at various film festivals around the country and hopefully on your local PBS station. Don't miss it!
Dan Thornton (2013). Documentary Review Gig Spotting Network
Asheville is a wonderful city nestled in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina. Most everything about the town is either quaint or magnificent. It does have a dirty side though.
or scroll down to read reviews and articles below
Covering citizens' inspirational efforts to get their area cleaned up and corporations dodging crimes that individuals cannot, "My Toxic Backyard" accomplishes its mission without being preachy.
As a capsule history of South Asheville's CTS Superfund site and its detrimental impact on residents in the Mills Gap Road area, "My Toxic Backyard" is a Grade A success.
Directed by local filmmaker Katie Damien, the documentary is the kind of concise, informative work with local and national implications that plays well to anyone for whom injustices strike a nerve. The film is showing in Asheville once a day May 8-15 (see box).
Chronicling this troubling tale, the film's ominous tone is set early by Aaron Penland, who provides a guided tour of a home movie from 1986. Penland dubs it a "death video," and the sight of his numerous relatives who lived in the community and have since died of cancer is an immediate attention grabber. The haunting aerial Google Map imagery of 74 cancer cases within a mile of the plant only adds to the horror.
With copious facts about contaminated drinking water and many personal histories of those affected, the film's 53 minutes flow well, and Jaime Byrd's smart editing keeps the storytelling engaging. Damien presents this information and expert testimony in an easy-to-follow fashion that's further aided by consistently clear audio.
Cued to Jason Smith's melancholy, piano-heavy score, "My Toxic Backyard" employs a professional mix of talking heads and scenic shots and following in the footsteps of great documentaries, the film grounds itself with not one but two charismatic subjects in Penland and Tate MacQueen. Returning to them frequently, Damien wisely lets their personalities guide the story, which towers with humanity whenever they're on screen.
"My Toxic Backyard" is, however, a decidedly independent film and at times its shoestring budget is apparent. Though Damien's photography is generally clean, there are a few notable lighting issues, and while the occasional use of graphics are workable, they lack the slickness of a studio-funded project.
Still, the story being told doesn't require much flashiness, and after firmly establishing the film's heroes, simply letting the camera roll at community meetings and capturing fired-up citizens berating the EPA employees who have failed them is plenty powerful.
Artful, quieter scenes of family life poetically highlight the CTS blunder's ongoing impact and each time someone drinks water or children run through a sprinkler, one's skin crawls for fear of the consequences.
Packed with citizens' inspirational efforts to get their area cleaned up and raising issues of corporations dodging crimes that individuals cannot, "My Toxic Backyard" accomplishes its mission without being preachy.
With the CTS case currently before the Supreme Court, Damien's film is a fine primer of a local hot-button issue and firmly establishes her as a filmmaker to watch.
Grade: B-plus. Not rated.
IF YOU GO
"My Toxic Backyard" is playing at 7 p.m. daily, May 8-15, at the Fine Arts Theatre, 36 Biltmore Ave., Asheville. Admission is $9.75; seniors $7. A Q&A with the filmmaker will follow Thursday's screening. Learn more and view a preview at www.mytoxicbackyard.com.
Edwin Arnaudin (2014) Asheville CTS tale, Asheville Citizen-Times
The Story: Documentary about the local fight to get the old CTS manufacturing plant cleaned up. The issue is ongoing — two decades after the problem was reported to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Lowdown: Strong, sharply focused, straightforward activist documentary that allows its anger to be simply conveyed by amassing the facts and letting those directly impacted speak for themselves. Gets in and does the job with admirable speed.
Director: Katie Damien
Starring: Tate MacQueen, Aaron Penland, Dot Rice
Interest should run high for My Toxic Backyard. It’s a locally made documentary about a local and timely problem — the long-standing issue of getting the old CTS plant cleaned up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is the kind of activist documentary that could easily have gone wrong in so many ways. It could have been unfocused and angry. It could have — as is the nature of most documentaries — gone on far too long after it had made its point. But director Katie Damien navigated these potential pitfalls and has delivered — with the aid of such other local talent as filmmakers Jaime Byrd, David Saich and composer Jason Smith — a straightforward film that builds its case methodically and coolly with little editorializing. It channels its anger through the voices of those affected by the cancer-causing pollutants still being filtered into the soil by the long-abandoned plant. For that matter, after years of fighting the battle and losing loved ones along the way, much of their anger and frustration has turned to sadness. It is this sadness — and determination — that fuels the viewer’s ire. For such a simple film, My Toxic Backyard manages to be both powerful and graceful.
Intriguingly, the project was a long-gestating one that began when Damien was looking for a home and discovered that housing in the Mills Gap area near the site was unusually affordable. The reason for this was soon apparent and caused Damien to look elsewhere, but the story continued to haunt her — leading to this film. That’s actually fitting, since the story itself has been going on for 20 years — two decades of efforts and legal battles to get the EPA to do something about the site and its spreading pollution. It’s a disturbing, frustrating and infuriating tale that is well told — and worth your time for the issue, for the film itself and, yes, for the support of local filmmaking. Not Rated
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre for one show a day.
Ken Hanke (2014) My Toxic Backyard Mountain Xpress
Dorothy Foltz-Gray (Jan. 2014) Watered Down Bold Life Magazine
Denton Texas recently hosted the Thin Line Film and Music festival. This event boasted and array of high quality films across a multitude of subject areas. My Toxic Backyard was most certainly a standout. Katie Damien, filmmaker and North Carolina resident, wove a captivating tale of industrial negligence perpetrated on the residence of Asheville. Although this film focuses on the residents of North Carolina, the issue of toxic contamination hits close to home for many. Data cited by state and federal organizations indicate that 1 in 4 Americans live within miles of a toxic Superfund Site.
My Toxic Backyard provides a powerful narrative on the rising and disproportionate cancer rates in the Asheville area. The portrayal of the townspeople’s frustration with federal agencies’ inaction and the generational loss of life suffered by families in the area were truly moving. Damien navigates this emotionally laden topic with the precision of a seasoned professional. She allowed the story to unfold organically from the point of view of the residents. The filmmaker’s decision to avoid leading questions or assertions in the absence of data added significant credibility to the story. This documentary is an important statement on not only industrial neglect, but also the power and resiliency of a town that refused to allow their story to be ignored.
Stephen Roux (Feb. 2014) Review: My Toxic Backyard Denton Dallas and Beyond
Video Librarian Review: My Toxic Backyard
By M. Puffer-Rothenberg on December 29, 2015