Pennsylvania Legacies #165: River Story

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The Wild and Scenic Film Festival On Tour returns to Pennsylvania this month with in-person and virtual screenings hosted by PEC and POWR. One of the featured films, “A River Reborn”, is a new documentary about how the Little Conemaugh River in Cambria County is rebounding from decades of pollution. We discuss the film with its director, Ben Kalina, of Mangrove Media.

 

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival On Tour returns to Pennsylvania this month, with a cinematic celebration of the outdoors you can enjoy virtually or in-person. It’s sponsored by PEC and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers, in partnership with the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape. Last year’s festival was online-only, but this spring you can attend a live screening hosted by the Loyalhanna Watershed Association in Ligonier.

One of the featured films is Philadelphia filmmaker Ben Kalina’s new documentary, A River Reborn, about the Little Conemaugh River in Cambria County, and its transformation from a toxic remnant of southwestern Pennsylvania’s industrial past into a haven for anglers, paddlers, and wildlife.

There has to be a shared understanding of the value of making these investments. And that’s where storytelling comes in.

The Little Conemaugh has suffered from decades of acid mine drainage, and the residents of Johnstown had largely given up on it ever being used for recreation again. The river was so polluted that a large-scale water treatment system was necessary to  reduce the dangerous metals in the water.

“That’s where the social-political challenge is, because it’s expensive. And so there has to be a shared understanding of the value of making these investments. And that’s where storytelling comes in,” said Kalina.

For Kalina, the story of the Little Conemaugh was the perfect opportunity to take abstract concepts about conservation and environmental issues and ground them in the experiences of real Johnstown residents. The documentary highlights the stories of many locals, including anglers, local entrepreneurs, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

“You start to see the constellation of activities the area can provide,” said Kalina.

While telling Johnstown’s story, Kalina tried to be sensitive to the lasting impact of the coal and steel industries. Many people interviewed for the film had personal connections to industry, and balancing the need for a more sustainable future and a move away from coal with the significance of these industries to the history of Johnstown was important.

“[Johnstown] is one of the many communities in this country that helped it become what it is. So you can’t just say ‘thanks for that, and see ya later.’ So now it’s our job to help. Part of the collateral damage of [industry] is still there and very present,” said Kalina.  

You can meet the filmmakers involved with A River Reborn at the The Wild and Scenic Film Festival On Tour on April 28th from 7 to 9 pm. Join us in person at the Watershed Farm, the home of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, 6 Old Lincoln Highway West Ligonier, PA, or virtually. Tickets are available here.

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