Inside Story Q&A: Sifting Through 'Toxic Secrets' To Nail Polluter
A six-month investigation by The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record and northjersey.com produced a four-part series of stories in 2018 revealing that the DuPont chemical company knew that cancer-causing solvents dating back to World War II could vaporize into the homes of a New Jersey community. The series, "Toxic Secrets: Pollution, Evasion and Fear in North Jersey," won first place for investigative reporting in the Society of Environmental Journalists' 2018 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ's judges called the stories "more than just great newsgathering; they also displayed innovative storytelling, highlighted by engaging illustration and beautifully produced multimedia" (here's more from the winning citation). SEJournal Online's "Inside Story" editor Beth Daley recently caught up via email with project reporter James O'Neill. Here is the conversation.
|Reporter James O'Neill, part of a team that spent six months investigating toxic pollution by DuPont in a New Jersey community. Click to enlarge.
How did you get your winning story idea?
The Record and NorthJersey.com had covered DuPont's history of pollution in Pompton Lakes for years, but never did the deep dive the story deserved. We launched our reporting efforts in mid-2017 to answer one question: Why did toxic groundwater remain under an entire neighborhood almost 30 years after DuPont signed an agreement with the state of New Jersey to clean it up? To do so we went through thousands of documents spanning more than four decades — most of which had never been seen by residents.
What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece/series and how did you solve that challenge?
Anytime you're faced with 100 boxes filled with documents in a dusty government warehouse, you're going to feel overwhelmed. How do you deal with this? Pray you have an editor who believes in the project and will give you time not only to sift through all this but the ability to analyze it and look for trends. Also, the vast majority of documents were not digitized. So get a scanning app for your smartphone. It can be arduous doing this yourself, but you save time in the long run by focusing on the documents that really matter.
What most surprised you about your reporting/findings?
It was clear from the scores of documents that DuPont engaged in a pattern of obfuscation since the 1970s when environmental regulators first began looking at its Pompton Lakes plant. But there was an important period between 2001 and 2008 when DuPont pushed back time and again whenever regulators prodded them to test homes to see if solvents from the polluted groundwater were vaporizing into basements.
What was truly astonishing was one document we found from EPA using the federal Freedom of Information Act. A Sept. 18, 2003 internal EPA memo said DuPont had “adamantly opposed” conducting vapor samples in the neighborhood because “they are involved in several citizen suits and they are concerned that such an assessment could be detrimental to the cases.”
DuPont didn’t test homes until 2008 after it settled the lawsuit with 500 plaintiffs, the majority of whom signed a waiver prohibiting them from suing the company again.
That memo was clear evidence that DuPont put the bottom line over the health of everyone in that neighborhood. And the regulators let them do it.
How did you decide to tell the story and why?
The story told such a long history that we carved it up into four parts: the findings of our investigation, how the site became so bad, the residents' stories and the future of the neighborhood. We shot 20 hours of video which were turned into a three-part, half-hour documentary. We also published more than a dozen outtakes — longer interviews with our subjects that didn't deserve to be on the cutting room floor.
What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?
We wouldn't set a semi-arbitrary deadline for ourselves. We wanted to get this done before the end of 2017 because of a few other things on our respective plates. And so we were cramming to make that deadline. Thankfully our editor saw our struggles and eliminated the deadline completely. We published two months later.
'There's a pretty good chance that
the real history of a toxic site in your community
has been kept secret in a warehouse for decades.'
— James O'Neill, The Record
What lessons have you learned from your project?
It reaffirmed that document research is still at the core of investigative reporting no matter the subject. Time and again we were told one thing by DuPont and environmental regulators only to find a document that either countered that claim or provided much more information.
What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
There's a pretty good chance that the real history of a toxic site in your community has been kept secret in a warehouse for decades. When you begin looking for documentation, don’t ask the EPA or your state environmental regulator for a particular set of documents. Ask them to provide you access to the entire case file for a site. It provides a thorough understanding of its history, especially how regulators dealt with polluters at the time crucial decisions were being made. Because the files are so voluminous, the vast majority of documents will likely not have redactions.
Some of the best documents include:
- Correspondence between regulators and polluters. We found instances where New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection officials became extremely frustrated with DuPont’s stall tactics. One email from a case manager to DuPont: “If you are truly trying to protect human health, it should not have taken this long." At other times NJDEP seemed to coddle DuPont, like when it set ground rules about an upcoming meeting: “Listen as allies. (We’re in this together and we get to both live by the decisions).”
- Intra-agency correspondence often reveals case managers and scientists writing candidly about polluters and cleanup efforts or the lack thereof. One document on Pompton Lakes had a case manager scrawl “Bull!” in pencil on the margins of a DuPont report asserting that pollution was not traveling offsite.
- Engineering reports can show the history of the site, ownership transfers, geology of the region, which chemicals were used and up-to-date contamination levels versus samples taken in the past. One caution: These reports are often written by a contractor for the polluter and may not always be impartial.
Please note that case files aren’t always complete. Once you’ve examined them thoroughly and find the holes in the narrative, write your records requests with surgical precision for the documents that may fill the gaps.
Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism that wasn’t captured above?
I always tell reporters who feel overwhelmed by environmental subjects to treat it like a cops story. The perp is the polluter. The cops are the regulators. And the victims are the people suffering from the polluter's action and/or inaction. Keep it simple. Go forth and report.
James M. O’Neill is currently assignment editor for The Record’s topics and investigative team. He previously had covered environmental issues and the impact of climate change on New Jersey at The Record and NorthJersey.com since 2008. Before that he was in the Washington, D.C. bureau of the Providence Journal, covered the New Jersey statehouse and higher education at the Philadelphia Inquirer, covered county government at the Dallas Morning News, and covered higher education at Bloomberg News.
Click the video below to see former Pompton Lakes Mayor John Sinsimer explain how DuPont's plant operation spread chemicals off its property and into Acid Brook and groundwater. And view the full, award-winning report here.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 24. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.