As up-to-date as its display of a post-election tweet by Donald Trump — who looms conspicuously large during the film’s opening and closing minutes — “What Lies Upstream” is a quietly devastating documentary that’s all the more attention-grabbing for being such a scrupulously restrained and slickly polished piece of work. Directed by Cullen Hoback, whose equally compelling “Terms and Conditions May Apply” (2013) cogently addressed privacy concerns in the digital age, the film percolates with a nonpartisan paranoia regarding state and federal regulatory agencies while linking the contamination of drinking water in West Virginia to what Hoback perceives as a perfect storm of industry maleficence, government negligence, and bureaucratic malpractice.
Both as narrator and onscreen interviewer, Hoback conveys a tone of earnest inquisitiveness, evincing the same polite manner whether addressing concerned scientists, state legislators, or trailer park residents. Initially, he visits West Virginia — where he has family roots — after people in and around Charleston begin complaining about the strange odor of their tap water. As often happens in such situations, the first to report health effects are folks on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. One working-class interviewee insists that while he is “100% for coal and 100% against Obama,” he nonetheless suspects grave environmental damage may have been caused by one of the industries based in his part of the state, an area known as Chemical Valley.
Sure enough, it’s detected that MCHM, a coal-processing chemical, leaked from rusting tanks at the local Freedom Industries facility. Technically, there were laws on the books that mandated regular inspections of such tanks. But as another interviewee pointedly emphasizes, “Regulation without enforcement is useless.”
The documentary pursues the story over a period of years, starting with the predictable denials by government and industry spokespeople, and continuing through passage in the state legislature of a “Tank Law” designed to initiate more demanding oversight of potential pollutants. The following year, however, many of the same legislators who supported the Tank Law vote to defang it by adopting another bill that, as Hoback reveals in a scene that borders on the darkly comical, is quite literally drafted by a roomful of lobbyists. When Hoback tries to question Mike Hall, sponsor of the bill, after its passage, the Republican state senator looks and sounds very much like he knows next to nothing about the contents or provenance of the legislation he supported.
The director finds plenty of blame to go around as he widens his focus to include the crisis in Flint, Mich., where lead contaminants were found in drinking water, and the film posits the potential for similar health risks elsewhere. Through interviews with research scientists, agency whistle-blowers and concerned citizens, Hoback builds a persuasive case against not only industry and political figures, but also the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency.
A grim scenario gradually takes shape: According to “What Lies Upstream,” CDC and EPA directors have unquestioningly accepted data provided by industries for several decades, even while downplaying or dismissing reports about pollutants in land and water throughout the United States. Even now, it seems, the regulators continue to be negligent in their regulating. And to make matters worse, President Trump doesn’t appear likely to encourage greater vigilance.
Hoback does an impressive job of methodically building his case. And he’s every bit as adroit when it comes to fashioning, over the course of his film, an insightful account of two intriguing players in this ongoing real-life drama. Dr. Rahul Gupta is introduced as a Charleston area health official who’s uniquely outspoken about the health risks caused by the Freedom Industries chemical leak. After he’s appointed to run the state health agency, however, he becomes increasingly more circumspect, if not downright evasive, while facing questions about the public’s right to know. On the other hand: Randy Huffman starts out as an image-conscious bureaucrat — specifically, head of West Virginia’s Dept. of Environmental Protection — but comes to question whether industries really should have so much leeway in policing themselves. It should be noted, however, that Huffman ultimately finds another job, and spends even more of his spare time fishing in local waters that may contain all manner of nasty surprises.