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INDEPENDENT LENS: What Lies Upstream

Airs Monday, April 16, 2018 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

At the Flint River during the 2016 crisis, What Lies Upstream director Cullen...

Credit: Courtesy of Hyrax Films

Above: At the Flint River during the 2016 crisis, What Lies Upstream director Cullen Hoback looks at the iconic water tower in the distance.

Documentary Thriller Investigates the Largest Chemical Drinking Water Contamination in a Generation

In this unsetting exposé, investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback travels to West Virginia to study the unprecedented loss of clean water for over 300,000 Americans.

Upon examination, he uncovers a shocking failure of regulation from both state and federal agencies and a damaged political system where chemical companies often write the laws that govern them.

While he’s deep into his research in West Virginia, a similar water crisis strikes Flint, Michigan, revealing that the entire system that Americans assume is protecting their drinking water is fundamentally broken.

“What Lies Upstream” premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS Monday, April 16, 2018 on PBS.

What Lies Upstream - Trailer

In the unsetting exposé "What Lies Upstream," investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback travels to West Virginia to study the unprecedented loss of clean water for over 300,000 Americans in the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. He uncovers a shocking failure of regulation from both state and federal agencies and a damaged political system where chemical companies often write the laws that govern them.

In January 2014, West Virginians noticed that their tap water had a peculiar smell.

It was soon discovered that a mysterious chemical, MCHM, has leaked into the Elk River from a damaged tank at a nearby chemical plant, poisoning the drinking water supply for nearly half of the state’s citizens.

Hoback — whose interest was piqued by family ties to the state and a desire to understand why the contamination happened — embarked on an investigation that would lead him down a rabbit hole of an unimaginable scale.

What Lies Upstream - "Contaminated Freakin' Water"

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS film "What Lies Upstream," coal mining families in rural West Virginia tell investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback about the loss of clean drinking water in their neck of the woods, after a disastrous 2014 chemical spill and contaminated coal mining run-off. Brown water in their tub, piping in cleaner water in trucks, it's all the stuff of nightmares.

As Hoback continues his investigation, several leading players in the drama come forward including Randy Huffman, the head of the State’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Dr. Rahul Gupta, who runs the local health department, and several scientists, lobbyists, politicians, and industry insiders-turned-whistleblowers.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Hyrax Films

Dr. Rahul Gupta, currently the Commissioner of West Virginia’s Bureau for Public Health, addresses citizen health concerns during the state’s 2014 water crisis.

Disillusioned, Hoback travels to Flint, Michigan to see if there is a connection between the recent lead contamination there and the water contamination in West Virginia.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Hyrax Films

Randy Huffman, Cabinet Secretary for West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, being asked about his complicity in the state’s 25,000 violations of the Clean Water Act.

With the guidance of the key whistleblowers in Flint, Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the connection becomes clear: the regulatory agencies charged with protecting citizens are too often beholden to political interests over scientific facts.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Hyrax Films

Dr. Marc Edwards, prominent scientist and noted lead contamination whistleblower.

“You may want to watch this documentary before you drink that glass of tap water,” said Lois Vossen, INDEPENDENT LENS executive producer. “In his quiet, earnest way, Cullen lifts a nonpartisan lid off state and federal regulatory agencies to show a persistent link between contaminated drinking water in West Virginia and government negligence and cover-ups and industry malpractice. We want to believe the people working inside our government agencies act in the best interest of ‘we the people.’ Regrettably, that’s not always the case.”

“an exemplary piece of advocacy filmmaking”Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times

“damning”Ben Kenigsberg, New York Times

“environmental horror film”Matt Cohen, Washington City Paper

WATCH ON YOUR SCHEDULE:

This film will be available to stream on demand for a limited time after broadcast.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION:

INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter. #IndieLensPBS

Follow @LiesUpstream on Twitter. #WhatLiesUpstream

Follow @CullenHoback on Twitter.

CREDITS:

Director is Cullen Hoback. Producers: John Ramos, Cullen Hoback and Nitin Khanna. Executive Producers: Nitin Khanna, Karan Khanna, Jaswinder Grover and Jay Walia. Co-Producer: Alina Solodnikova. Writer: Cullen Hoback. Cinematographer: Vincent Sweeney. Editor: Cullen Hoback. Consulting Editors: Geoffrey Richman and Greg Finton. Composer: John Morgan Askew. Lois Vossen is executive producer for INDEPENDENT LENS.

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