'Carbon Black' Report Shows Impacts On Native Americans

February 15, 2005

 

By MIKE DUNNE

 

An effort to document the lives of Oklahoma Indians introduced reporter Vicki Monks to a story that begged to be told: how a carbon black plant affected the health of a neighboring Ponca Indian community.

Carbon black, made by the burning of waste oil, is used primarily to strengthen the rubber in tires.

Monks' story, which won a 2005 Society of Environmental Journalists' Award for Radio Reporting, focused on how emissions of the ultra-fine carbon particles used to make tires black also made neighbors' homes – even their sheep – black.

With the story, aired on Public Broadcasting System's "Living on Earth," Monks found a pollution problem that was being ignored by the officials who were supposed to be protecting the environment. The story also was rich with the competing sounds of rural Oklahoma and modern-day industry, sprinkled with the unique language of the Ponca.

"No matter how interesting the subject might be, if the interviews are dull, it won't be a great story," Monks said when asked how one makes a radio story extraordinary.

Patience and an understanding of the Ponca culture were also key. Monks outlines how she did the story:

Q: How did you conceive of the project? 
A: When I ran into this story last year, I'd gone to White Eagle, Okla., to do research for a book (still in progress) about Oklahoma Indians 100 years after the tribes here were forced to give up their communal lands. White Eagle is one of the few almost entirely Indian communities that remain in the state. A federal attorney warned me not to go there because "those Poncas are pretty rough." So of course I went immediately, and met good, gracious people who led me to some of the most astonishing stories I've ever encountered.

The first time we walked through the Ponca Indian housing project next door to the carbon black plant, I decided immediately that this story was too important to wait for publication in my book. I've covered environmental stories for more than 20 years, and I'd never seen anything quite like this – the carbon dust was so thick around the houses the kids playing outside looked like they'd been rolling in charcoal, and I discovered that simply walking across the grass had coated my legs with the dust almost up to my knees and had ruined a good pair of shoes. (On my second visit, one of the women gave me plastic bags to tie over my feet.)

Over the next few months, I returned to White Eagle six times, driving back and forth from Santa Fe, N.M., to research this story and others. Every detail I learned made the carbon black story that much more compelling. It was like peeling a pungent onion – every layer seemed to be smellier than the last: the pollution began almost immediately after the carbon black plant opened in the 1950s, but regulators consistently ignored complaints; a farmer down the road showed me his white sheep that had turned sooty black from the dust and gave me stacks of inspection reports all concluding that the black dust wasn't coming from the Continental Carbon plant.

The Oklahoma's Department of Environmental Quality enforced a rule requiring that its own inspectors must witness the dust blowing across the factory fence before the agency could act and the Bureau of Indian Affairs had approved building a lowincome Indian housing project next to the plant, even though the agency knew the land was so contaminated no one else would buy it. Children and elderly people at the housing project were suffering from high rates of respiratory and other illnesses. New research was demonstrating precisely how ultra-fine particulates such as carbon black can damage health. And finally, the DEQ admitted to me that the agency had been using a faulty test to determine whether dust samples taken from the homes contained carbon black.

Q: How did you get started? Had you covered the topic before? If not, what did you do to background yourself?
A: I've been reporting on toxic pollution since the 1970s when Karen Silkwood's apartment in Edmond, Okla., was contaminated with radioactive plutonium from the Kerr-McGee plant where Silkwood was a union activist. At the time, I was a reporter for KWTV in Oklahoma City. Working on that story not only opened my eyes about the presence of potentially dangerous contaminants in the environment, it taught me something about the nature of power and how it can be used to suppress information. During the Silkwood case, the Daily Oklahoman fired two reporters who covered the story. The action had a chilling effect and even though the national press became intensely interested in the Silkwood story, local reporting remained minimal. My news director told me that Kerr-McGee President Dean McGee paid a personal visit to KWTV station owner John Griffin to ask that I be fired or at least pulled off the Silkwood story. Fortunately, Mr. Griffin was a bootstrap-up independent businessman who took offense at anyone trying to tell him how to run his TV station. I got word to bulldog the story, as long as I made absolutely sure that my facts were correct.

When I began to understand how severe the pollution from Continental Carbon's plant had been for so many years, how state regulators had refused to enforce environmental laws, and how the story had been ignored by local media, it seemed to me that not much had changed in the 25 years since I left the state. That's one of the reasons I moved back to Oklahoma this summer. There's a wealth of environmental stories here that go largely unreported. So, back to your question …

In the early 1990s, I gave myself a crash course in toxic contaminants and risk assessment when I decided to challenge The New York Times' coverage of dioxin. At the time, I'd been researching a story on Agent Orange, and was astonished to see a front page story in The Times concluding that dioxin was no more dangerous than sunbathing. That assertion was contrary to all the scientific research I'd been reviewing, but dozens of major newspapers picked up the sunbathing theme and parroted the same conclusion. When I set out to write a critique of The Times' dioxin coverage for American Journalism Review, I spent several months intensely studying scientific literature on dioxin, endocrine disrupters and other toxic chemicals. What I learned about how to evaluate various contaminants and how to read health studies has informed my reporting ever since.

The first question I had to answer on the carbon black story was whether that substance poses health risks, and if so, how severe. The nuisance of the black dust was one thing – but if carbon black was also dangerous to human health, the state's failure to control emissions would mark a serious breach of responsibility. My first step was to gather all the health effects information on carbon black that I could find in medical and scientific journals. I began calling authors of those studies for interviews, but most had done such specialized research, their comments would have been incomprehensible to a general audience. I asked each scientist for recommendations on others to interview and after phone conversations with around a dozen people, I finally persuaded UCLA Professor John Froines to record an interview. He is chairman of California's Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants and his research on the health effects of ultra-fine particulates (a class that includes carbon black) was downright scary. I knew that I could only include the briefest description of his findings in the story – but it was enough to establish the potential for serious health problems from breathing carbon black.

In terms of the Native American aspects of the story, it helped immensely that I'd had the opportunity to study Indian law with Charles Wilkinson at the University of Colorado Law School in 2003-2004 as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism.

Q: What kinds of sources did you use? 
A: My initial sources were the people affected by the pollution. They knew the rough outlines of the situation but didn't have solid proof. One Ponca man who lived in the housing project had gotten a copy of a 1973 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) memo acknowledging that the land was so contaminated it couldn't be sold. I needed to make the connection between that memo and the subsequent transfer of the land to the (U.S.) Department of Housing and Urban Development for the purpose of building the Indian housing project. So I drove to the county seat in far northern Oklahoma to dig through land records until I found the transfer of title to HUD signed by the same BIA regional director who had received the original memo about the contamination.

The regional director, Sid Carney, had retired and said he couldn't remember anything about the project. BIA officials in local and regional offices came up with nothing more than the memo that I already had. A spokeswoman for HUD said that all relevant records were destroyed in the Oklahoma City courthouse bombing. An expedited search at BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., produced one more memo from an attorney concluding that Interior had no basis for a lawsuit against Continental Carbon (but that was a detail I couldn't work into the story.)

Other sources included union workers who'd been locked out of their jobs at the carbon black plant. They provided valuable details about factory processes and how leaks occur, as well as extensive documentation of chronic safety violations, advance notification of DEQ inspections and the subsequent special cleanups meant to hide ongoing violations as well as eyewitness accounts of midnight stack releases (since the company was well aware of DEQ's requirement that its own inspectors see the dust leaving the plant, the union workers told me that managers figured they'd be off the hook if they released most of the dust-filled emissions at night.) I also interviewed and obtained documents from consultants and attorneys working for the union.

Union workers at Continental Carbon's plant near Houston had been mining the company's dumpsters for information and had pieced together memos showing that the company's own engineers had warned the board about critically needed new equipment and maintenance – but those improvements weren't approved even though the memos made it clear that serious pollution problems would continue otherwise.

In Alabama, residents living near a Continental Carbon plant had recently won a sizeable judgment in a lawsuit against the company. I interviewed residents and attorneys by phone and obtained additional detailed documentation.

The Ponca Nation's environment department provided information about its own investigations of pollution from the plant, including air sample reports.

Since the handle for this story was the move by tribes to take over regulation of environmental laws, I also interviewed representatives from the Cherokee Nation and other tribes, Oklahoma's Environment Secretary Miles Tolbert, EPA Region 6 Director Richard Greene, and other EPA personnel.

And of course, I interviewed spokespeople for Continental Carbon and Oklahoma's DEQ. I did these interviews last because I wanted to make sure I had all of my facts and documentation assembled first. When I recorded the interview with DEQ, I took a 2-inch stack of documentation with me so that I could refer to specific points if I didn't get a responsive answer. I think that's why the DEQ spokeswoman admitted, near the end of the interview, that the lab test they'd used for years to determine whether samples contained carbon black was never a valid test.

Even though I had 16 minutes on the air, there wasn't time to include many of even the juiciest background details, but it was important for me to have that information anyway to help with my own understanding and evaluation of the story. Q: Did you have any sort of problem getting people to talk to you? A: Native Americans, especially the more traditional people, are frequently reluctant to talk with outsiders. Dashing in for quick interviews doesn't usually produce good results. Since I've been covering Indian issues for many years and am Chickasaw myself, I already knew some of the protocols for approaching native people and earning their trust.

Family connections – including far-extended family connections – are critically important. When I decided to visit White Eagle for the first time, I persuaded a Euchee friend, who was married to a Ponca woman, to go with me. Because he was willing to vouch for me, everyone I met that day was eager to talk.

After interviewing a number of people and forming the outlines of my story, I knew that Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead could be the most important people to interview – if I could persuade them to go on tape. The Buffaloheads had owned an Indian allotment next to the carbon black plant when it was built in the 1950s and knew the company's history of pollution. I'd heard that the Buffaloheads had both been ill with respiratory disease. But they are elderly, full-blood Poncas, and I was warned that they might not want to see me.

One of the Buffalohead grandsons that I'd spoken with previously went with me to make the introduction. I stopped by to visit again, but didn't take out my recorder and microphones until my third visit. I recorded for nearly four hours. After a while, Thurman and Thelma began to relax with the equipment and started speaking in Ponca, translating for themselves and each other, making jokes about the stinking contamination, and then getting serious about their frustration that it had gone on for so long. It's one of the best interviews I've ever recorded. And Thelma Buffalohead and I still write letters back and forth.

Q. Do you use an outline or some other mechanism to help you organize the material? If so, how often do you think you changed it?
A: I begin with a very rough outline that lists all the elements I'd like to include in the story – along with lists of potential interviews for each element – and lists of every detail that I need to confirm or document.

My elements outline almost always changes frequently as I gather material.

The story outline itself is dictated by the quality of interviews and natural sound that I'm able to collect. The white farmer with the black sheep gave me some wonderful, colloquially accented comments and I had good natural sound of him feeding the sheep – plus, the idea of farm animals changing color from the pollution made the farmer's "sound scene" a natural lead.

I needed to follow that lead with the nuts and bolts of the story – and a description of potential health effects – and even though those sections weren't as interesting from an audio standpoint, the information was strong enough to carry into the next vivid sound scene with the Buffaloheads.

The first script I turned in was half an hour long, but the material was so good it was agonizing to cut. "Living on Earth's" brilliant western editor Ingrid Lobet worked with me through several revisions until we got the story down to a manageable length for the program. We ended up dropping all the sound bites with the EPAregional director and the Oklahoma secretary of environment, mostly because what they had to say wasn't all that interesting. But we still had to cut some great material, including a scene with Karen Howe, whose young daughter Angela had such severe respiratory problems she was never allowed to play outside during the five years they lived in the Ponca housing.

Q: What do you do to make a radio story from ordinary to extraordinary?
 A: I think the best radio stories are character driven. No matter how interesting the subject might be, if the interviews are dull, it won't be a great story. Often, the tricky part is in drawing out people who aren't media savvy and feel uncomfortable in the presence of a microphone. My technique for putting people at \ease consists mostly of talking with them for such a long time; they forget the microphone is there.

Q. I know in radio and television, reporters often use "natural sound" to help give a story a sense of place. What do you look for and do you think it is a tool that print reporters could also use? 
A: Since I've worked in radio and television for so many years, even when I'm writing a print story I usually think in terms of sound and visuals. And I do believe the process helps my print reporting by reminding me to keep the stories grounded in specifically placed reality.

When I begin a radio project, I try to come up with as many potential sound scenes as possible. Then I see which of them actually work out well on the ground. Instead of interviewing the Ponca environment director in his office, I asked him to drive me around the area on a sort of "toxic tour." It was good sound but I didn't use it because other scenes were even better.

Q: What kind of response did it get from listeners? Was there any government response?
A: "Living on Earth" had quite a number of letters and emails from listeners saying they appreciated the story. The best was from a lineman who maintains radio and television antennas. He wrote that he'd complained for years because emissions from the plant were deteriorating antenna guy wires. He was also annoyed that he always had to throw away the clothing he wore whenever he worked on those antennas because the carbon dust would not wash out.

Since I moved back to Oklahoma, I keep running into people Inside Story 23 who heard the story and ask me why none of the local media had done it before. (My former TV station, KWTV in Oklahoma City, is now in the process of producing a story on the carbon black plant). The Cherokee Nation invited me to do a presentation on carbon black and other environmental threats to Indian lands at a statewide tribal conference in Tulsa.

After my interview with DEQ, before the story went on the air, DEQ finally imposed a small fine against the company – the first penalty the company ever paid in more than 50 years of operation.

Q. In some quotes with the people in your story, they are talking in their native language, but then they translated what they said, or someone else said, into English. Since time is important in a broadcast story, why use comments in a language none of your readers will understand? Did they just naturally translate? Did they occasionally discuss your questions in their native tongue before answering? I've had that happen to me with French-speaking Cajuns. 
A: When Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead began speaking in Ponca and translating for each other I was elated because the sound of the Ponca words expressed the essence of this elderly couple better than anything I possibly could write. These are people with a unique culture and language, and they are not relics from historic past. The Buffaloheads are modern American Indians who've held on to their traditional values and language while they've tried to cope with pollution from an industrial giant over the past half century.

The continued existence of the Ponca language illustrates how Indian culture still thrives in the midst of an industrial world. Simply allowing listeners to hear the language gets the point across about how much is at stake in this situation, without any direct comments from me.

Plus, I just love how the words sound. I loved how they relaxed and teased each other when they began speaking Ponca. In my view, letting the Ponca language flow – instead of butting in with a translator – communicates the nuances of the story far better than if I'd edited out the non-English.

Q. Do you think this story is repeated in other locations where Native Americans or other minority groups are impacted? If so, what advice would you give another reporter who wanted to do a story about a unique population being impacted by an environmental problem?
A: I'm certain that similar problems are occurring on Indian lands all over the country – and I'm currently working on a few of those stories.

My best advice for covering stories in Indian country is to be patient – and listen carefully. Be willing to wait through long silences while the person you're speaking with considers a reply to your questions.

Also, one of the most interesting aspects of these stories is that many of the tribes are developing their own expertise on environmental problems. For the past 30 years, the tribes have been supporting their young people to attend college, and many have come home with advanced degrees in science, law and policy. It could be that a push from the tribes will lead to improved environmental enforcement that will benefit other people as well.

Q: Have you done some follow-up stories? Someone told me you are doing a book. How is that coming? A: I'm currently working on a story about the backlash against tribal environmental regulation among a few groups that have extraordinary political clout here (Farm Bureau, independent petroleum producers and others). During the conference committee on the federal transportation bill, committee chair U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) inserted a rider that effectively prevents any Oklahoma tribes from taking over environmental enforcement on their lands.

I'm also doing a series of stories on other environmental threats to Indian lands here – but I can't discuss those at this point. I'll include many of these environmental stories in my book – which I hope to complete by next summer for publication in 2007 – the centennial of Oklahoma statehood.

View the script at: www.loe.org/shows/shows.htm?programID=05-P13- 00003#feature5 or use the link on the SEJ Contest winner's page www.sej.org/contest/index4.htm

Vicki Monks has worked for more than 30 years as a television and radio correspondent, documentary producer and magazine writer specializing in science, health and environmental reporting. Her articles have appeared in magazines including National Wildlife, Rolling Stone, and Vogue. She was also the primary author and editor of an in-depth PBS website produced as a companion to the Bill Moyer's documentary "Trade Secrets," www.pbs.org/tradesecrets.

Mike Dunne is associate editor of the SEJournal and a reporter at The Advocate in Banton Rouge, La.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005

 

 

MIKE DUNNE