Inside Story: If Pollution Cleanup Sounds Too Good To Be True, Maybe It Is

January 15, 2009
The $470-million first phase of the EnCap project of creating two golf courses, nearly 3,000 housing units and a hotel on former landfills in the meadowlands in Lyndhurst and Rutherford, N.J. Photo:Thomas E. Franklin/The Bergen (NJ) Record

By BILL DAWSON

The Record, based in northern New Jersey's Bergen County, has established a stellar record of investigating lingering environmental problems related to old waste-disposal practices in its coverage area.

In 2006, a team of staff members from the Bergen County Record received the first Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment for "Toxic Legacy," a series about decades-old contamination from a Ford Motor Co. plant.

The Grantham judges declared: "Ten journalists spent eight months investigating the actions of Ford, government officials and even the Mob in exposing residents of the woodlands of northern New Jersey – many of them low-income Native Americans – to these dangers."

The same series received the Second Place honor for investigative reporting in the Society of Environmental Journalists' Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.

In early 2008, a group of newspaper staffers were named as finalists in the Pulitzer Prizes' local reporting category for what the judges called "their probe of how plans to build a luxury community atop old landfills became entangled in questionable state loans and other allegations of favoritism."

In October, selected articles from the same continuing series, "Meadowlands for Sale," earned SEJ's top recognition for investigative reporting – the Kevin Carmody Award.

The SEJ judges' description of the project: "When New Jersey politicians promised to create a sleek, new wonderland of upscale development out of a long-neglected urban wasteland, the staff of The Record in Bergen County began digging. The result was a series of investigative stories that exposed how the EnCap project was an enormous tangle of political favors, giveaways, and secret, taxpayer-backed subsidies for a catastrophically risky venture. The promised cleanup of old landfills never happened; in fact, almost 2.5 million cubic yards of contaminated material were dumped to create the project's base. 'Instead of cleaning up the dumps,' The Record reported, 'EnCap re-created them.'"

The newspaper's primary EnCap team was:
• Jeff Pillets, a senior writer based in the newspaper's Trenton office, who now devotes his time to investigative stories but wrote mostly about government issues when work on the project started.
• John Brennan, a senior writer working out of the main newsroom who covers sports business.
• Richard Whitby, a news assignment editor who served as line editor on most of the stories.
• Tim Nostrand, the team leader, who is The Record's assistant managing editor for projects.

Nostrand responded to questions from SEJournal.

Q: EnCap was chosen for the initial phase of the project you investigated – a golf course proposed to be built atop closed landfills – in 1999. Groundbreaking occurred in 2004. What prompted The Record's decision in mid-2006 to launch an investigation? Did it grow out of prior coverage by beat reporters or others?

A: Before we embarked on our investigation, just about everybody in a position of power was praising EnCap as a model of public-private partnership and smart growth. On paper, it held great promise: Hundreds of acres of landfills and despoiled wetlands would be transformed into a bastion of the good life – condos, hotels, golf courses – all within minutes of New York City. The old garbage dumps that had been leaching poisons into the Meadowlands for generations would be properly closed, and the whole shebang would be done without using tax dollars, paid for instead by the golfers, condo owners and other ultimate users of the project.

The few locals who were opponents were derided as crackpots; even environmental-advocacy groups were on board.

It was also difficult to envision the immense scope of the project until work had begun in earnest. I remember driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, which bisects the site, and seeing the mountains of construction debris and other fill that were being brought to EnCap and being struck at how massive it was. That gave life to the questions that formed the heart of our inquiry: Did it make sense that people would someday want to live here? If not, did any of the underpinnings of the project hold up? What safeguards are in place to protect the taxpayer, the environment and the people who would be living here?

This project would be an exception to the rule that most good journalism comes straight from beat reporting. None of the members of the team had the Meadowlands as a beat. Senior editors made the decision early on that this massive development, and others in the Meadowlands, were worthy of special attention.

Q: At the outset in 2006, did you envision a reporting effort that was as far-reaching and long-running as this investigation became? In October of this year, nearly two years after your first articles appeared, the newspaper published eight stories on the subject.

A: No. We knew our work was going to take some time, but none of us had any idea that EnCap was going to be a big part of our lives for the next two years. But we built a project structure that had flexibility: We'd spend time at first getting acquainted with the subject, splitting time between that effort and our regular responsibilities. As our knowledge and understanding deepened, and our questions got more profound, we were able to devote more time to the investigation, while still tending to our other, regular duties. Brennan, in particular, was effective at this multitasking.

We also broke the typical project mold on this one, deciding at the outset that we would write stories as they developed, and not wait to pop a big, tree-killing project all at one time. We covered the story as breaking news when warranted, and as we became more knowledgeable, we broke off enterprise and investigative pieces on elements of the project as they became clear.

Ultimately, though, it must be said that this has been quite a story. From its shaky financial underpinnings, to its questionable environmental credentials, to most recently, questions about criminality and the involvement of underworld elements, EnCap has been the story that keeps on giving.

Q: Were there certain discoveries that your reporters made along the way, or other developments such as actions resulting from your reporting, that were especially influential in propelling the story and keeping it alive?

A: Yes, pretty much in the order above. First, by wading into the mind-numbingly complex financial structure for the deal, we were able to determine that, in fact, the public treasury was very much at risk in EnCap's financing. A full third of the remediation costs were being paid by what was essentially a state loan backed only by future sales taxes generated at the built-out project. A further round of refinancing would have allowed the developer to cash out while leaving local taxpayers on the hook if the project faltered. It was this reporting that prompted the governor to ask his inspector general to investigate.

We then moved on to the environmental questions, and our reporting detailed how behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and regulatory sleight of hand made mincemeat of the project's initial claims of sound environmental stewardship. In sum, we were able to prove that, as with the project's finances, EnCap's insider lawyers and lobbyists were able to wring concession after concession from government at all levels. Bottom line here: Rather than cleaning up the landfills, EnCap was likely to leave them more contaminated than ever, under millions and millions of tons of imported construction debris and other tainted fill.

Our work has now moved squarely into questions about whether laws were broken and the degree to which EnCap has served to once again open North Jersey's most iconic physical feature to mob dumpers. Federal and state prosecutors say they are conducting a joint investigation of the project.

The bottom line is that EnCap failed not because of any change in economic fortune or unforeseen difficulty but because our stories lay bare the shaky assumptions that were holding the project up.

Q: In 2006, The Record was honored for investigative reporting in a series on the long-lasting impacts from the dumping of paint sludge and other toxic chemicals by Ford Motor Co. Do the two series – on Ford and EnCap – have any instructive points of similarity or contrast in terms of how they came about and how you executed them?

A: There are indeed commonalities between the two stories, and some big ones at that. Both involve New Jersey's past environmental sins, which were profound and ubiquitous, and the difficulties that arise in attempting to remedy them. In both cases, valuable habitats had been used as dumping grounds and left to fester. Ford dumped its paint sludge and other castoffs in an uplands watershed; EnCap was rising in the region's iconic wetlands that had been a dump since the days of the area's first settlers.

More important, though, both stories underline the point that cleaning up after ourselves is very difficult for our society, much more difficult than many in positions of power would have us guess. When those efforts are hampered by insider dealing, shortsightedness, and lack of oversight, the effort becomes downright impossible.

Q: Clearly, with two major investigative projects winning national recognition in three years, The Record seems to have a serious commitment to time-consuming, labor-intensive investigative reporting. Staff cuts by many newspapers have led to reductions in this kind of journalism, or fears that it may be reduced. What lies behind The Record's apparent decision to swim against that current and devote considerable resources to investigations? Has your newspaper also recently experienced a shrinking news staff, like so many others?

A: We have a long-standing tradition of investigative reporting at the paper, and it persists even amid the staff reductions that we, too, have experienced. Our leadership team knows that we need to bring value to our readers and to differentiate ourselves, especially in a tough time that's made even tougher by unprecedented levels of competition for readers' time. They also know that, in a time of cynicism and mistrust of government, there's a great opportunity for a newspaper to be a voice that can be trusted to sort things out without bias, precondition or agenda.

Q: The EnCap saga is highly complex, with many dimensions – financial, legal, governmental, environmental. Was it particularly challenging to present all of those elements in a comprehensible way and show how they fit together? On the Web page for the series, along with an archive of all the EnCap articles, there's a very useful "5-Minute Read" that summarizes the story and tells where things stand now. When and why did you decide to present such a summary?

A: One insider called EnCap the most complex deal he had ever worked on. But our strategy helped immensely here. We took our time and waded through the material, relying mostly on our own common sense to sort things out. When something didn't make sense, we asked questions about it until we got an answer that did.

We tried mightily in all our stories to limit the toll on the reader, to boil things down to an essence and make them easy to understand. The "5-minute read" element was added this year, at the suggestion of our publisher, to a Web page that already held a list of the stories. That page also was home to some videos and other web-only components we had developed.

Q: How important an element is environmental reporting in the mission of The Record? The EnCap materials on your website are accessible through an Environment page that has equal standing, in the site's design, with News, Sports, High School Sports, Business and Education, along with several other topics, which suggests the environment is a high priority there A: New Jersey – and northern New Jersey, in particular – has a long history of industry and the pollution that goes along with it. Polls and other evidence show that it ranks high on the readerinterest list, but it's also intuitive that that would be the case in a state with such a history and where people have a deep mistrust of government. As noted earlier with our Ford series, the commitment to solid, watchdog reporting on the environment is a longstanding one at The Record.

A: New Jersey – and northern New Jersey, in particular – has a long history of industry and the pollution that goes along with it. Polls and other evidence show that it ranks high on the readerinterest list, but it's also intuitive that that would be the case in a state with such a history and where people have a deep mistrust of government. As noted earlier with our Ford series, the commitment to solid, watchdog reporting on the environment is a longstanding one at The Record.

Q: Not to oversimplify a complicated story, I hope, but it seems that EnCap, at its heart, is a brownfields controversy – admittedly, a very big one. Are there any journalistic lessons from your EnCap investigation that would provide helpful tips to reporters elsewhere looking at brownfields projects or similar issues in their own areas?

A: Brownfields development presents all sorts of opportunity for watchdog journalism. It's a classic case of the gap between fervent wish and harsh reality: Wouldn't it be great to replace relics of our industrial past with new, clean development that will help a crowded region accommodate a burgeoning population? But doing it correctly involves great cost, given the degree of contamination in many of these sites, and a strong oversight by government.

That was especially true of EnCap. The Meadowlands itself may not have been the site of heavy industry, but it was the place to which the castoffs of North Jersey's industrial past were brought and dumped.

Our work was guided by some basic principles. We used public-records laws to amass mountains of paper on the project, everything from the financial instruments to the structure of the environmental oversight of the project. We then trusted ourselves to wade through the complexity and get down to basic concepts. We challenged everything, even though just about everybody in government was telling us that there was no story here.

Some specific questions are likely to translate to other situations:

How is the project funded? To what degree is government financial support involved? How risky are the assumptions that underlie that support, and the project in general? Who takes the loss if those assumptions are not realized? Who's minding the store on the environmental front and can they be trusted?

With EnCap, the state essentially handed oversight to the developer and its consultants and contractors. If that's the case with your project, what controls does government have in place?

One final observation: EnCap stands as a monument to that time-tested tenet of enterprising journalism: If something doesn't smell right, it probably isn't.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

Bill Dawson