Atlanta filmmakers team up with CBS News to tackle America’s wastewater crisis

Docuseries ‘Wasteland’ takes on crumbling infrastructure’s toll on the environment

Director Elisa Gambino has a knack for tackling some deep schisms in America: divisions between rich and poor, Black and white, industrial profit and environmental concerns.

Gambino and her husband, Neal Broffman, a cinematographer and editor with their production company One Production Place, continue their commitment to storytelling with a deep vein of social consciousness in their CBS Reports docuseries “Wasteland.” The film debuts Feb. 24 on Paramount+, and is centered on the often tragic stories surrounding America’s failing sewage disposal system.

Gambino, a former CNN International journalist-turned-filmmaker and Collier Hills resident made her film debut with the meaty, close-to-home 2020 documentary, “Welcome to Pine Lake,” the first feature-length film released by CBSN Originals.

“Welcome to Pine Lake” showed the contradictions that define the Pine Lake community, where a gay mayor and all-female city council seem to embody progressive values.

But the town’s white residents, with their performative celebration of the arts, inclusivity and a free flow of ideas, have also conveniently overlooked courtrooms filled with Black people preyed upon in local police traffic stops whose fines help to fill the town’s coffers.

Credit: Elisa Gambino

Credit: Elisa Gambino

“Welcome to Pine Lake” is a scathing indictment of the privilege of obliviousness when it comes to class and race. And Gambino notes that even following the release of the documentary, Pine Lake continues its predatory ticketing practices as a source of revenue.

Gambino and Broffman met in Amman during the first Gulf War when Broffman was working out of the CNN London bureau and Gambino was in the Rome bureau. They started dating in Mogadishu, got engaged in Bosnia and were married in Rome. They’ve lived in Atlanta for 23 years.

An accomplished documentary filmmaker in his own right, Broffman is the director of the 2015 film “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” about a Brown University student who became the target of vicious social media speculation that he was connected to the Boston Marathon bombing when he went missing in 2013.

Credit: Elisa Gambino

Credit: Elisa Gambino

The couple continues their work together in “Wasteland.” The film initially focused on Lowndes County in Alabama’s Black Belt, where a lack of adequate sewage disposal in predominately Black neighborhoods has led the United Nations and others to liken the region to something out of a developing nation.

But Gambino saw waste as a topic far larger in scope than just rural Alabama and expanded the production to cover “sanitation as it relates to systemic racism in Mt. Vernon, New York; climate change, over-development and septic tanks in southwest Florida; and hog manure in Iowa,” she says. “Because I wanted to share stories about the important links between our waste and the human right to clean water and sanitation.”

CBS News correspondent and executive producer Adam Yamaguchi travels to those four communities in New York, Alabama, Florida and Iowa to show the devastating impact of crumbling sewage infrastructure, factory farming and poverty on the environment and on individual Americans’ lives.

In Iowa, the film crew documents manure run-off from the state’s massive hog farms that has contaminated ground water with toxic nitrates. Residents have been left with a host of cancers and waterways so filled with waste that swimming is an impossibility.

And in Fort Myers, Florida, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, sewer systems that can’t keep up with population growth imperil the state’s rich ecosystem and abundant wildlife, spawning red tides and algal blooms.

Yamaguchi interviews Mt. Vernon resident Linda McNeil, who has had to clean raw sewage that has backed up into her home countless times over the past two decades because of the city’s crumbling sewer system. A kind of waste crisis team is shown heading to emergencies throughout the city where basements, garages and businesses have periodically been flooded with raw sewage.

After reporting on sub-standard sanitation in India and Indonesia, Yamaguchi says he was astounded to discover such deplorable conditions in American cities like Mt. Vernon.

“Given my previous reporting, it was all the more shocking to find that Americans too are dealing with inadequate sanitation — with failing septic systems and straight pipes emptying human waste into pits, sometimes merely feet away from their homes.”

“The idea that people live in constant fear of sewage backing up into their homes, in a city just miles away from Manhattan, I think would shock most people,” says Yamaguchi.

WHERE TO WATCH

“Wasteland” debuts Feb. 24 on Paramount Plus. “Welcome to Pine Lake” can be seen on CBSN and YouTube; “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” is available on Amazon Prime