Emmy Winner: “The Forever Chemicals” takes documentary prize

Emmy Winner: “The Forever Chemicals” takes documentary prize
June 22, 2020 Sandra Svoboda

It’s still a pandemic, so we didn’t get to attend a gala – in fact I was still in filthy workout clothes when I got the news on Saturday night.

But I can’t imagine it was any less thrilling for any of us on the Great Lakes Now team that produced “The Forever Chemicals” when we all learned we won a Michigan Emmy in the Health/Science – Program/Special category for “The Forever Chemicals,” which premiered 15 months ago on Detroit Public TV.

Great Lakes Now’s documentary was nominated for a 2020 Michigan Emmy. Photo by Sandra Svoboda

Congratulations also to our partner WCMU-TV. The team there produced “Linking Land and Lakes: Protecting the Great Lakes’ Coastal Wetlands,” which won an Emmy for Photographer/Program – Non-News. A segment from that documentary appeared in the most recent Great Lakes Now monthly program. More HERE.

“The Forever Chemicals” examined the impact of PFAS contamination in west Michigan communities: private wells that tapped into groundwater near industrial dump sites were delivering PFAS-laden drinking water to unsuspecting residents for years until the contamination was detected and reported publicly, mostly by MLive Media Group.

The full team that produced the documentary includes: Angela Brayman, Marie Gould, Rob Green, Zosette Guir, Matt Ilas, William Kubota, Sandra Svoboda, Jordan Wingrove and Ernie Zinger, with additional production support and partnership from MLive Media Group and digital design by Shelby Jouppi.

Watch it here:

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Since its premiere, the documentary has aired 62 times on PBS stations in three states and additionally on the Bay County governmental channel. We screened it at the Sustainable Brands conference in Detroit, a special showing with panel discussion at WKAR in East Lansing, at the Thunder Bay International Film Festival earlier this year and as part of the University of Michigan-Michigan Sea Grant Lake Effects film series.

We remain grateful to all of the people who shared their stories about life with PFAS, which included tearful recanting of losing loved ones to cancers and surviving miscarriages – both known to be linked to consuming the chemical.

PFAS contamination continues to be one of the biggest water crises facing Michigan and other states, and we updated the documentary in a recent monthly show.

Watch that segment here:

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“The Forever Chemicals” also earned two top honors from the Michigan Broadcast Association, winning in the Mini-Documentary or Series and News Special or Documentary categories for public television.

Now, as we’re celebrating, I’ll share a few behind-the-scenes stories about making “The Forever Chemicals”:

It was too cold for a “selfie” at the DPTV studios but this was our car as we left for the first shoot for “The Forever Chemicals.” Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • The first shoot was on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, around Grand Rapids. If you don’t remember that date, it was the week the state nearly shut down because it was so cold and snowy. Rob Green, then a contract videographer/producer and now Supervising Producer for our monthly show, and I drove across the state sure we were going to slide off the road at any moment.

A few of these photos appeared in “The Forever Chemicals” documentary. Sandy Wynn-Stelt shared them of her husband, Joel, who died of liver cancer. Their well is contaminated with PFAS at one of the highest concentrations found so the couple had unknowingly been consuming the industrial chemicals for years. Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • Our first shoot was of Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who lost her husband Joel to cancer a few years ago. She sat for hours of interviewing, gave us a tour of her home, bundled up for an outside shoot and sent us away with homemade cookies.

Great Lakes Now’s Rob Green films the McNaughton family for “The Forever Chemicals” documentary in 2019. Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • Our second shoot the same day was with the McNaughton family. Tobin was pregnant at the time, and we shared an evening with her, her husband Seth and their toddler Jack, who at the time had the highest known concentration of PFAS in his blood.

Dinner on the first shoot for “The Forever Chemicals.” Photo by Rob Green.

  • After about a 16-hour day, nothing was open, and Rob and I ate “gas-station cheese” for dinner at our hotel – coupled with the cookies, it was a decent meal. Now, no matter how bad a meal is, we say, “Well, it’s not gas-station cheese…”

Great Lakes Now’s Rob Green sets up to shoot MLive Media Group’s Garret Ellison for “The Forever Chemicals” documentary in 2019. Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • The next day we met MLive Reporter Garret Ellison whose work on PFAS contamination in Michigan is arguably the best in the country. He also generously sat for an interview at the MLive Grand Rapids office. This partnership would grow into ongoing work together, which audiences have seen in several Great Lakes Now program segments including “Vanishing Shorelines” and “PFAS Contamination in Ann Arbor” in the monthly show premiere.
  • We got some extra support from the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Using the funding, MLive produced some stories about the cost of PFAS to municipalities across the state, and we funded production of the documentary.

Varnum Law represents several of the residents affected by contaminated wells. This photos is from Great Lakes Now’s February 2019 shoot in the Grand Rapids office. Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • Rob and I returned to the Grand Rapids area for a second shoot. We met the lawyer representing the residents with contaminated wells, and we returned to Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s house for “Wine and Water Wednesday,” a gathering of women whose homes have PFAS in their water supplies, inspiring them to activism around the issue. At that shoot, Tobin told us about her recent miscarriage. I’m not sure if Rob actually cried behind the camera, but I did.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters poses with Great Lakes Now Program Director Sandra Svoboda’s dog, Bowie, at Detroit Public Television’s Riley Broadcast Center in Wixom in March 2019 after a shoot for “The Forever Chemicals documentary. Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • One of the final shoots we did was on a Sunday morning at the DPTV studios in Wixom with U.S. Sen. Gary Peters. He was gracious enough to pose for a photo with my dog, Bowie. (My mom has a photo of my nephew with a U.S. senator, so I didn’t want to be outdone…)
  • Michigan public radio audiences might recognize the narration voice as Laura Weber Davis. She’s currently producing Stateside at Michigan Radio and formerly worked at WDET-FM in Detroit and the Michigan Public Radio Network’s Lansing bureau. Just four hours after she finished the voice over for the film, she delivered a baby – a healthy boy! Four hours. #NeverMissADeadline

DPTV’s editing suite at the Detroit Bureau is where Great Lakes Now’s “The Forever Chemicals” was finalized. Photo by Sandra Svoboda.

  • Producing “The Forever Chemicals” was the first big project Rob and I did with DPTV. Without our colleagues putting up with endless questions, this documentary – and the subsequent monthly series – would not have been made. I tried to reward some of them with homemade pizza dinner at our house to watch the program air.

The award adds to Great Lakes Now’s Emmy success. In 2019, the “Tapping the Great Lakes” documentary won for Politics/Government – Program Special. This also is the second consecutive win in the Health/Science – Program/Special category for Great Lakes Now staff. Last year, “Beneath the Surface: The Line 5 Pipeline in the Great Lakes” took top honors in that category.

Got suggestions for us for topics to make it a trifecta? Send them to us HERE.

1 Comment

  1. Dan Alpert 4 years ago

    Funny and touching. Thanks Sandra for pulling back the curtain on what goes into the polished program we see and that the Emmy judges awarded. Congratulations! Sorry about no Emmy ceremony and party. Whatever you had at home, though, was probably better than “gas-station cheese.”

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