Our right to clean drinking water has been a brackish topic since reports on methane-contaminated water in Dimock, Pennsylvania, several years ago — very likely the result of hydraulic fracturing. It’s happening again with the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and at press time, plans were underway to test drinking water in schools throughout New Jersey, after lead contamination was found in Newark schools.
For regular attendees to screenings of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, now in its 10th year, issues of water security are a familiar topic: drought, flooding, melting ice caps, and endangered sea life, all a result of human intervention. The festival, which runs through Sunday, April 10, at Princeton Public Library, will offer a panel discussion, “Spotlight on Water: Managing Our Most Precious Resource” featuring former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, Chris Sturm of NJ Future, and Jonathan C. Kaledin of Natural Systems Utilities, on Wednesday, April 6, at 7 p.m.
The speakers will address why we still have water pollution and contaminated drinking water in the 21st century and discuss the state of New Jersey’s drinking water, wastewater, and storm water infrastructure, and what is being done to ensure its reliability.
The festival’s 25 films also include talks with filmmakers and speakers.
“Water is flowing through the festival,” says PEFF founding director Susan Conlon, “from ‘A Simple Question,’ about a sailing adventure and quest to find yourself, to a film about fluoride and another about the world under the sea in terms of sound, from drilling to cargo ships, and how that is affecting ocean life.”
“After the Spill,” screening Friday, April 8, at 6 p.m., follows the disappearing Louisiana coastline in the wake of the 200 million gallon oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 (it is a follow-up to director Jon Bowermaster’s “SoLa: Louisiana Water Stories,” screened during a recent festival).
Bowermaster also directed a series of short films, “The Hudson River: A River at Risk.” He traveled up and down the river by kayak, taking a look at a handful of issues facing the Hudson, its historic valley, and 20 million neighbors, including the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge, currently the biggest construction project in North America with a potential to create serious environmental harm if not closely monitored.
Another New Jersey premiere focuses on Jamaica Bay, also known as “Garbage Bay” because, for more than 100 years, it’s where New Yorkers put the things they didn’t want. “Saving Jamaica Bay” screens Thursday, April 7, at 7 p.m.
Part of Gateway National Recreation Area and the largest open space in New York City — bigger than three Central Parks, three Prospect Parks, and three Van Cortlandt Parks combined — Jamaica Bay is cleaner now than a generation ago, although it still has a way to go, according to the film. And though they may not know it by name, travelers landing in or taking off from JFK International Airport have seen the bay from aloft.
“There are more species of wildlife here than in the Adirondacks or the Catskills — more than 325 bird species and 100 types of fish have been documented — and it’s accessible by taking the A train and walking a half-mile to the visitor center,” says actress Susan Sarandon, who narrates the film. It was easy getting Sarandon to sign on as narrator, says producer and writer Daniel Hendrick, because she is impassioned about environmental causes.
Jamaica Bay is so rich in biodiversity because it offers both salt and freshwater habitats and is along a migratory bird path. Owls, osprey, and horseshoe crabs are shown making their homes here, as well as peepers, gray tree frogs, egret, ibis, yellow crowned night heron, and terrapins — a sign of a healthy bay, except that the terrapins are often found on the airport runway and the osprey like to nest on towers.
But for decades landscapes of garbage, abandoned boats, piers, and docks — not to mention the occasional gangland victim — were dumped here. In the era of the horse-drawn buggy, Dead Horse Bay was thus named because barges dumped equine remains. Four sewage treatment plants discharged effluent, and in more recent times, as jumbo jets spewed noise pollution overhead, plans were underway to fill in the wetland and build runways needed for future air traffic.
“There are no easy answers,” says Hendrick, who is also director of external affairs at Carnegie Center-based NRG. “Airports are part of the modern economy. It’s easier to ask the question than provide the answers.”
Hendrick, who worked as a journalist for many years, is the author of a book on the bay’s history (“Jamaica Bay,” Arcadia Press, 2006) and lives in Queens, a few miles from the bay. “In the 1970s or ’80s you wouldn’t dream of hanging out there,” he says. “It was a place for abandoned cars. Robert Moses put four housing projects out there, as a means of warehousing New York City’s poor, with no means of transportation.”
Hendrick, who is originally from Michigan’s Great Lakes region, is the son of a hospital laboratory supervisor and Chrysler Motor Company man. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies from Columbia University, he found himself working for the Queens Chronicle. “I was impressed with the place and its people: firefighters and others with a working class background who accomplished so much.”
Before the environmental movement, wetlands and salt marshes were seen as wastelands (think of the Meadowlands in northern New Jersey and Abbott Marshlands in Trenton). At the same time the natural beauty along the water was appreciated and resorts developed, along with ferries to bring people to the area known for some of the best fishing on the east coast.
(Full disclosure: As a child in the 1960s, I attended Brooklyn Day Camp on Jamaica Bay. One day, with a cohort, I escaped organized activities and we took a boat out on the bay to go fishing. City girls inspired by “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” we knew nothing about the sport beyond what we saw in Norman Rockwell paintings and tied a string to a stick, probably using a paper clip for a hook. After not too long we felt a tug, and it took two of us pulling to haul that thing up from the sea — a dripping ugly dead fish covered with garbage. That’ll teach us to skip organized activity.)
Fishermen built shacks along Jamaica Bay that became year-round homes, and a community developed among those who shared a love of the outdoors. Many of the homes are lived in by heirs to the original owners, and these residents became environmental allies when, in 1995, they began noticing the marshes disappearing. Following Hurricane Gloria and the nor’easters of 1991 and 1992, homes began flooding.
Today there are beaches where walkers crunch over green glass bottles, a remnant of an era before the proliferation of plastic bottles. The beach means different things to different people, and one man’s garbage is another woman’s spiritual offering. In communities surrounding Jamaica Bay, 130 languages are spoken and dozens of religions are practiced. We see Hindu worshippers bringing prayer flags, incense, saris, figurines of deities, and multicolored flowers, giving their offerings to their gods. In the end, all of this is left behind in the water. As a result of the film, a group has formed to help address the issue and raise awareness about the need to keep such items out of the water.
Filming had begun before Hurricane Sandy, but during the storm Hendrick kept the cameras rolling. We see residents shoring up in the days leading up to the disaster, hoping for the best, then evacuating in canoes and returning later to rebuild their homes, some from scratch. “It was horrible to watch and be in the middle of, but at the end of the day it underscores the importance of caring for nature,” says Hendrick. It is the restoration of the salt marshes that will help protect the bay from future storms on the magnitude of Sandy. (Note: the crew did follow evacuation orders, but residents and firefighters contributed footage of the disaster.)
We see the resiliency of the residents as they return to dilapidated homes that, earlier in the film, looked like seaside retreats. “The overwhelming majority love living there, being by the water and only an hour from Manhattan — where else can you have that?”
Hendrick says he considers himself more a Jamaica Bay guy than a filmmaker, and so he hired award-winning director David Sigal to work with him. He’s not planning his next film, just getting the word out about how Jamaica Bay is part of a broader reclaiming of urban areas. “For so long our cities were polluted, and now people are moving back and want fresh air and beauty. Gateway National Recreation Area doesn’t get the same attention as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, but it should.”
The festival offers films for landlubbers as well, such as a premiere of “The Magic of Marquand Park” on Friday, April 8. Yes, that’s Princeton’s own Marquand Park, established in 1953 when the Marquand family gave 17 acres of their estate to the municipality to be set aside for passive recreation and as an arboretum, with more than 170 specimen trees that attract birds, a playground that lures children, and benches from which to observe it all.
“The Magic of Marquand Park,” directed by Dominique Godefroy, grew out of Project Wild Thing, an initiative from last year’s festival seeking to engage children with nature. “We were thinking, how can we get kids outside, enjoying trees, water, streams, and animals?” asks festival director Conlon. “Marquand Park, an arboretum right in town, offers that chance to connect people and nature, learning to identify trees in a way that will have deep meaning for them.”
After 10 years the festival has made a difference. People have come together over issues, making changes in how they eat and shop. “People often come to an event and then want to get involved, so we highlight local nonprofits on our website for boots-on-the-ground work,” says Conlon. “We purchase the DVDs for our collection, and this year we added a book component, recommending fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books.”
Through the sponsorship of Church & Dwight, the Nature Conservancy, the Whole Earth Center of Princeton, Friends of the Princeton Public Library, and NRG, all PEFF screenings are free.
Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-924-9529. For a complete list of festival films, and updates on speakers, see community.princetonlibrary.org/peff.