Watered Down

Katie Damien surveys the Superfund site, that is the subject of her documentary, My Toxic Backyard, from across the street. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Katie Damien surveys the Superfund site, that is the subject of her documentary, My Toxic Backyard, from across the street.
Photo by Rimas Zailskas

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.”

My Toxic Backyard

Coming to Asheville

this spring


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