This is a cross post from The Lightning Rod
Rhiannon Fionn is an award winning journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is known for work that ranges from everyday news to in-depth investigation.
Her current project, titled “Coal Ash Chronicles” is in its fourth year. It is a project that has taken her from North Carolina to Alaska and many places in between. Her writing has been published in The Huffington Post and The Charlotte Observer.
TLR: You’ve been working on the coal ash story for quite a few years now. Can you tell us when this subject became important to you and why?
RF: “I had just graduated from UNC Charlotte in May 2009 when the EPA released its list of high-hazard coal ash ponds. I think it was the next month, June, actually. I remember being up at like 2 a.m. sifting through some government documents and looking at a satellite image of the two unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds on Mountain Island Lake and realizing, Hey! That’s our drinking water. It just doesn’t get much more important than our drinking water, so informing people about what’s going on with it is what motivates me; people deserve to know what’s in their water and lifting the proverbial veil is my job as a journalist.”
TLR: This work, which began as written word journalism, has blossomed into a documentary film project. Can you tell us how the movie is progressing?
RF: “Yes! We are in post-production, which means we’re working to cut and edit together hundreds of hours of footage. We’re finishing up our rough cut now and will soon begin on the final image edit, then the film will go to our sound engineer, Joe Miller of Rock Hill, S.C. He’ll balance the sound and compose the music. So, we’re getting there. While all of this is going on, we’re applying for and waiting for grant monies that will help us get to the finish line. There’s a lot of other tedium in the background, but I’ll spare your readers the minutia.”
TLR: What has this journey taught you about the strengths and weaknesses of print media in today’s trans-media world?
RF: “I tell you, I am so sick of hearing other journalists tell me that the story is too complicated. Yeah, it’s complicated. That’s exactly why the media needs to be fully entrenched. I think that because so many newsrooms are short-staffed in a time when more and more is expected of each individual journalist, topics that require deep investigations are being ignored in some cases. Investigative journalism is expensive and time consuming, but it’s also incredibly important. On the up side, there are projects like Investigative Reporters and Editors DocumentCloud that are enabling journalists to share information with each other (if they want to); we’re actually planning to upload a bunch of public documents by the end of the year for both public consumption and to help reporters dig into the coal ash story in their communities.”
TLR: In the clips that we have seen of your film project, ordinary people appear to be very open with you about their stories. Which of these interactions jumps to the forefront of your mind today?
RF: “Gosh. Each and every person we’ve interviewed is important, obviously. I think Larry Jenson, in the Town of Pines, is a super important interviewee, though. He’s retired from the EPA and has been trying to get the agency’s attention about the potential radioactivity of coal ash – it does have radioactive elements in it – for five years. Now there is a third-party contractor up there doing some testing, but Larry has pointed out the flaws in their testing methods. Because of his background and knowledge, I find his input very important.”
TLR: Your project seems to highlight an increasingly urgent theme in American civic and political culture: the enormous influence that corporations have in shaping public policy. What changes would you like to see, concerning the democratic oversight of environmental issues?
RF: “Well, the changes I’d like to see extend far past environmental issues. This idea that corporations are people is absurd. They’re more like vampire sociopaths – they can’t die, they suck us dry, and they only care about their selves. So, what I’d like to see is for Congress to do something to combat the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and to make a real effort to get money out of politics. Do I have much hope of this happening? No.
And, yes, you can quote me on that. LOL”
TLR: What advice would you give to someone else embarking upon a similar project?
RF: “Well, I backed into this the wrong way – I was going to write a book and only began working on a documentary film when the story called for it; I felt like these people – on all sides – needed to be seen and heard. One of the biggest challenges for us is fundraising; film making is incredibly expensive and the payoff is slight. So, I’d say that they need to try to find some sort of funding up front. The problem with that is that people seem more interested in helping you finish a project than they do in helping you begin one. In our case, I was in a car accident and was awarded a settlement. So, I began this project with that money plus a couple years’ worth of tax refunds. Because the project is so demanding, I haven’t been able to get much other paying work done, so I’ve pared down my lifestyle and possessions to the bone to keep things going. I really hate this answer, but it’s the truth: The critical thing is to find money as early as possible.”
PHOTO: Coal Ash Protest – Duke Energy Corporate HQ – Charlotte, NC – Feb’ 2014