Old-Fashioned Reporting Turns Good Stories to Gold

July 15, 2006

By MIKE DUNNE

Two members of the Society of Environmental Journalists honored recently for their investigative reporting efforts say that digging through records and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting helped them make good stories great.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette was the winner of the Scripps Howard Edward Meeman Award for environmental reporting – the third time he was so honored. His winning work focused on a coal silo permit that should not have been issued and was revoked thanks to his reporting.

Investigative Reporters and Editors tabbed The Record in Bergen, N.J., for its "Toxic Legacy" series, a saga of illegal dumping by Ford Motor Co., with appearances by organized crime and the impact it had on a small New Jersey community, especially a family called the Ramapoughs. Reporter Alex Nussbaum was part of the team that produced it.

How does one take a story and make it an investigativeaward winner?

Ward had this to say: "Zig when others zag. Dig into the part of something that isn't getting the headlines. Don't be afraid to go dive into paper files. Read the law, and then see if what the files show matches what the law says is supposed to be done. Try to become an expert on the issues you cover. Learn to use your computer, but don't forget about calling people and looking through paper files. " Nussbaum said, "The project drove home to me how much information is hidden in plain sight – available in public documents just waiting for an enterprising reporter to ferret them out. Internal Ford memos from the 1960s and 1970s, for example, documented that the company knew long ago that its dumping had tainted a stream that flows into a major local reservoir. Another memo suggested Ford had tried to hide the extent of contamination on a property it donated to the state as parkland. Waste-hauling manifests, filed with the state environmental agency, showed that mob-connected haulers had carted toxic industrial waste across New Jersey. And while government press releases over the years had conveyed nothing but assurance that Ford was clean, internal memos from EPA and other agencies showed there had been more uncertainty behind the scenes.

"There's no doubt other stories are hidden in government warehouses and reading rooms, and I think environmental journalists would do well to devote the time to look into them," he said.

"The Ramapoughs' experience also showed me how sloppy cleanups can be, intentionally or not. It's a subjective, inexact science, at best. The cleanups are largely organized and conducted by polluters and their consultants. Even where strong laws are in place, government agencies are often too understaffed to provide serious oversight," Nussbaum said.

SEJournal put the same set of questions to both award winners about how they put together their stories:

First, Ken Ward Jr.:
Q: How did your story begin? How did you know it would be worth the time and energy?

KW: My story began with two events. First, I had heard that West Virginia's Gov. Joe Manchin had a private meeting with a number of environmental activists who were upset with a Massey Energy coal waste impoundment in Raleigh County, and that the governor had promised to investigate their concerns.

Then, our state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) turned around and issued new permits for the facility, and for a new coal silo closer to the school – before the governor's investigation even began. I wrote a story about that, and it prompted the grandfather of one of the Marsh Fork students to stage a one-man sit-in on the state capitol steps. That really got me interested.

So, I went and looked at the permit maps. In order to be legal, these silos – and the rest of the facility – had to be in existence and within a permit area that existed at the time the Surface Mining Act was passed, in 1977. Otherwise, they were prohibited by a 300-foot buffer around schools and other public buildings.

I spent some time looking at the maps, and it really didn't take very long to see that the permit area had changed since the original permits. So, I spent a little more time examining all of the maps ever filed by the company. And, I had some overlays made at a local blueprint shop so I could compare the maps submitted from various years. That's how I drew my conclusion that the silos were not going to be within the original – and legal – permit area.

Q: How did you frame or scale the story?

KW: Well, that changed. We had a Sunday story about ready to go about what we had found. But, I was still trying to get reaction from the state DEP to the maps. They kept putting me off. And, in the end, they announced on a Friday – just hours after meeting with me to finally discuss the maps – that they were revoking the permit. We had to run a daily story, because of their press announcement, and that forced us to rewrite the Sunday story somewhat too.

The daily story was basically, "DEP is revoking this permit because they discovered – after we told them – that the maps showed the silos outside the permit area." The Sunday story was a more detailed account of the changes in the permit over the years, and DEP's refusal to investigate this very issue when citizens raised it more than a year before.

Q: What's the most important thing you did to take your story from an idea into print?

KW: I guess it was a simple matter of doing some legwork – old-fashioned looking at files in a government agency office. That, and this – the citizens didn't like this silo, and they just felt there was something wrong about putting it this close to a school. But, they did not have the time or expertise to examine the permit files and figure out if DEP had really done anything wrong in permitting it.  That's my job. Rather than being a story-telling exercise about folks who are upset about some environmental problem – the typical narrative reporters look for – this was oldfashioned investigative reporting that gives people information they need to be a vital part of their democracy. Without the information I gave citizens about this map, they really didn't have a leg to stand on in arguing with DEP.

Q: Great stories like yours seem to put people, like victims, into it. How did you find them?

KW: Well, the main one I talked to, Ed Wiley, was just this grandfather who showed up on the state capitol steps a couple blocks from my office. He wasn't hard to find. The others are just folks I know from living here and working here for 15 years.

Q: At what point did you contact the targets of your investigation? How cooperative were they?

KW: Well, I guess there were two targets. The company, Massey Energy, has a corporate policy of not talking to my newspaper because they don't like what we write about them. They've also sued us. My standard practice is just to put in the paper that they won't talk to Gazette reporters. However, I make it a point to always read their filings in court cases and listen to arguments their lawyers make in open meetings, and I try to give them their say that way, even though they won't talk to me.

The state Department of Environmental Protection here is another story. Our DEP has a ton of great people working for it who want to do a good job. But like most such agencies, they are run by political appointees who don't always have the same agenda as the career staff. Over the years, some DEP directors have been better than others in talking with me and allowing staff there to talk to me. The current DEP secretary, Stephanie Timmermeyer, is not a big fan of my work, and doesn't always respond well when DEP staff give me information or answer my questions. That has gotten better in the last year, in part because I raised the issue on up to the governor's office, where folks said they didn't want to appear to be hiding anything.

Also, I think, Secretary Timmermeyer has become more comfortable being in the spotlight and more comfortable talking to me personally. I hope so, anyway. DEP has generally had good PR people, and they always try to help get information. But sometimes they also try to be minders to listen in to what I'm being told. Mostly, folks at DEP will almost always talk to me, though. They're proud of the work they do, and don't mind explaining things to me.

In this case, though, it took me a while to get the new mining director at DEP, Randy Huffman, or anyone else there, to sit down and look at these maps and answer questions about what I had found. Once they did, though, Randy was pretty open that I had caught them in a mistake and he was going to try to fix it.

I think part of dealing with agencies like this is being around for a while and getting to know people, and having them get to trust you and that you're giving them a fair shake.

Q: What do you look for in an investigative story?

KW: I try to look at problems that people in my community – West Virginia – identify in the environment around them, and then try to look at the system that is supposed to control or prevent those problems and see why it isn't working.

Q: Basically, you are a beat reporter. How did you get the time to do your stories? What happens to the beat when you are busy doing your story?

KW: The Gazette is a locally owned paper that has always been – and is still – a reporters' paper. By that, I mean that the upper management and the line editors will give reporters lots of time to look into big issues and write big stories about them. We're a small paper, but I put our substantive coverage of a whole range of issues up against any paper in the country.

Now, Alex Nussbaum:

Q: How did your story begin? How did you know it would be worth the time and energy?

AN: "Toxic Legacy" grew out of the work of two of our local reporters, Jan Barry and Barbara Williams. For years, they'd been covering Ford's cleanup of a Superfund site in North Jersey and the health problems the pollution had allegedly caused for neighbors living on the site. Jan and Barb had written plenty of dailies and enterprisers on the cleanup, but as they spent time in the community, they realized there was a larger tale to be told. They heard locals' stories of bizarre illnesses and high death rates. Jan, tipped off by the residents and local activists, hiked the surrounding woods and canoed streams and rivers in the area. What he found – big pools of hardened paint sludge, stacks of industrial barrels – made clear that the site hadn't been cleaned up despite the assurances of Ford and the federal EPA. This wasn't just a potential threat to the local community – the industrial waste sat in the watersheds of a major reservoir, so the drinking water for 4 million people in New Jersey also seemed at risk.

At the same time, the community itself offered an intriguing story – a low-income, Native American enclave with deep ties to the land in the midst of the wealthy, go-go New York suburbs.

Our projects editor, Tim Nostrand, a veteran Jersey journalist, was the first to ask questions about organized crime. The mob had a chokehold on waste hauling in New Jersey for much of the last century, so it made sense to ask whether they had a hook into Ford's assembly plant as well. We took documents the company had handed over to the EPA, cross-referenced them with court records and the investigative reports of the State Commission on Investigation, and started to see connections.

With strains of race, class, pollution, disease, organized crime and government negligence, if not outright corruption, it was clear we had the makings of a bigger, richer story.

Q: How did you frame or scale the story?

AN: We decided early on to frame the story around Ford's old assembly plant in Mahwah, N.J., which produced much of the industrial waste dumped on the Ramapoughs' neighborhood. The Ramapoughs were the tragic heart of the story, certainly – the reason for readers to care – but we wanted to go beyond their plight. We also wanted to tell the story of a plant that was an economic pillar of the region in its time but also bequeathed an environmental disaster on some of its neighbors. So the plant would be a character, as would its workers, the executives in Detroit, politicians in Trenton and the shady haulers who deposited its waste across the landscape – not just in New Jersey but also across watersheds in upstate New York. So we decided to organize the story around the history of the plant itself, from the day it opened in 1955 through its environmental impacts today.

It was an ambitious plan, but the newspaper was willing to devote the time and resources. The cleanup had been bungled in such massive proportions, the suffering of the Ramapoughs was so acute and the potential impact to the regional water supply was so serious that the top editors felt it was a tale worth going at in a big way.

The key, I think, is to frame your project early on. Have a firm idea of the story you want to tell and what sources you're going to need. Maybe even write an outline or a lede at the start of the process to give you an idea of where you're trying to go. Keep an open mind, of course. The story will change. But a strong focus will rescue you when you wander down the inevitable blind alleys and dead ends of reporting.

Q: What's the most important thing you did to take your story from an idea into print?

AN: We couldn't have done a story of this scale without the newspaper's commitment of time and resources. The project team included the two local reporters, two health reporters, our one full-time environment reporter (me) and one of our two law enforcement reporters. Each of us spent six months or more devoted almost exclusively to this story. The Record also spent about $10,000 testing soil, water and the sludge itself.

That said, any environmental journalist could do this type of reporting. I find it funny sometimes to have won an "investigative" reporting award because the journalism we practiced was simple. This was basic, shoe-leather reporting. We spent months poring through government documents and knocking on doors across North Jersey and upstate New York. There was no "Deep Throat" involved, no special investigative training necessary.

Q: Great stories like yours seem to put people, like victims, into it. How did you find them?

AN: We knew where the Ramapoughs were, of course. Gaining their confidence was the challenge. This is an insular group that's suspicious of outsiders. They opened up to us only after seeing us in their community, day after sweltering summer day, knocking on doors and slowly drawing out people's stories. Two of our reporters, Barbara Williams and Mary Jo Layton, all but moved in with the Ramapoughs, spending about two months in the neighborhood. It allowed us to get the small details that helped portray this mix of suburban and native culture, where animal pelts hang in backyards next to SUVs hulking in the driveway.

We insisted on documenting the Ramapoughs' claims of illness. HIPPA, the federal law protecting medical privacy, was a real obstacle here. Many hospitals were reluctant to cooperate, even after we obtained written permission from patients to discuss their cases. In some cases, we drove people to doctors' offices and clinics to obtain their files. It took a lot of time, but we knew we'd have to address skeptics who wondered if other factors were responsible for the Ramapoughs' illnesses or if they were exaggerating the problems to win a big pay day from Ford.

Tracking down workers from the old Ford plant, and the haulers who dumped their industrial waste, was a challenge. The plant had closed in 1980 and many potential sources had died or moved. We culled names from government documents, old clips and word-of-mouth. After we had a few names, it was just a matter of using Nexis and other databases to track people down. As often happens, one source led to another, which led to another.

The truck drivers and landfill workers involved in the illegal dumping were surprisingly willing to talk – perhaps because much of the activity occurred 30 or 40 years ago. I think most people want to tell their stories to someone. Show a little interest, politely, and they're likely to open up. I did as little reporting as possible over the phone, figuring it would be harder for people to say "no" to me in person. But we had a few doors closed in our face.

Q: At what point did you contact the targets of your investigation. How cooperative were they?

AN: We'd been covering the Superfund cleanup for years, and our requests for documents made it clear to regulators and Ford early on that we were working on something in-depth. But we didn't request our big, sit-down interviews until late in the process, after we had an idea of where the story was going. The EPAand New Jersey's environmental commissioner each sat with us for more than an hour, not counting countless follow-up calls. Ford declined our requests for a face-to-face interview and then refused to answer most of a list of e-mailed questions.

The EPAand state regulators were generally cooperative, but we filed a series of FOIA requests anyway. We wanted to trigger the legal expectations and requirements that go along with such requests. That way, any agency that wanted to withhold information wouldn't just be giving a reporter a hard time; they'd be in violation of the law.

Q: What do you look for in an investigative story?

AN: Complexity, depth, richness of subject matter and good characters to interest readers – a story that can't be told properly without the extra time and space. Documentary evidence also helps – something that takes it beyond the typical hesaid she-said story. The human element is key. Why spend six months on a 300-inch epic that no reader will care about?

Q: Basically, you are a beat reporter. How did you get the time to do your stories? What happens to the beat when you are busy doing your story?

AN: I focused solely on this story for about four months. Fortunately, The Record has another, part-time environmental reporter. But stories did fall through the cracks. I've done two longterm projects now (the last one a 2003 series on air pollution and the asthma epidemic). In both cases, I found my coverage didn't suffer much by missing some of those daily stories. I realized how many bureaucratic pronouncements, activist press conferences and ponderous "thumb-suckers" we cover as habit that don't add that much to the conversation. I never heard readers complain about missing that coverage. But many have praised our series.

Toxic Legacy: www/.toxiclegacy.com

Ken Ward Jr. is a staff writer for The Charleston Gazette in Charleston, W. Va., where he has covered the environment and the coal industry for 15 years. He is a native of Piedmont, in Mineral County, W. Va., and a graduate of West Virginia University. Ward is a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation's Meeman Award for Environmental Journalism and, among other awards, received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists for his coverage of mountaintop removal coal mining. He is currently reporting on mine safety and the coal industry as part of a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Ward is also chairman of SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force.

Alex Nussbaum is a senior reporter covering the environment for The Record of Bergen County, N.J. His work on asthma and air quality, mercury pollution and a fatal dormitory fire at Seton Hall University have won top honors from the Association of Health Care Journalists, the New Jersey Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He graduated in 1992 from Cornell University.

Mike Dunne reports for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, LA., and is assistant editor of SEJournal.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue.

 

By MIKE DUNNE