By KEN WARD Jr.
I know that a lot of folks are down on TRI, and I agree that the data is not perfect. But I'm also terribly concerned that we as environmental reporters don't use it frequently enough (or well enough) and particularly frightened about EPA's proposals to cut back on the program. I also know that some of the best stories I do are based in some way on TRI data. It's still simply the best basic set of pollution numbers we have. Here's my latest example of how TRI helped me make a so-so story into a darned good one.
The press release popped into my inbox back in January 2005. It was one of those things we environmental reporters get all the time. A national environmental group had analyzed some data and published a report. This time, the group was called Oceana. The topic was mercury pollution – not from coal-fired power plants, but from a major, little-known source called chlor-alkali plants.
I've grown a bit tired of these reports, in large part because they make me feel guilty. These groups are doing our jobs, I tell myself. I should have found that data and done this report as a project or a Sunday story.
But this study caught my eye. It said that there were only nine of these chlor-alkali plants in the country, but that, as an industry sector, they rivaled the nation's 500 coal-fired power plants as a source of mercury pollution.
And, the report told me, one of these plants was in West Virginia. PPG Industries operates it at Natrium, a dot on the map along the Ohio River in my state's northern panhandle.
Chlor-alkali plants make chlorine by pumping salty water through vats of pure mercury. Some mercury is directly discharged through vent stacks, but huge amounts of it are believed to simply evaporate out of the facility – and still more mercury is somehow "lost" into the environment. The process is more than 100 years old, but is fast being replaced by newer and cleaner technology.
I'm a little ashamed to admit that I had no idea that this plant was such a big source of mercury pollution. I didn't even really know what they make there. In my defense, the plant is pretty far from Charleston, in a corner of the state the Gazette does not cover very closely. But I drive by it all the time on the way to my in-laws in East Liverpool, Ohio.
So, I knew right away I had to do a story. But I didn't want to just do a quick daily that rewrote the conclusions from the Oceana report. It seemed to me that this was a rich topic that deserved more attention from me and my paper.
My boss and I decided right away that this has the potential for a big Sunday take-out piece. We set a couple of goals: First, to go to Natrium and visit the plant and find out what it was all about. Second, to get our own data and develop our own news about this plant's pollution, rather than just quoting from Oceana.
So the first thing I did was get some data. The Oceana report, published in January 2005, used 2002 numbers from EPA's Toxics Release Inventory. When I started my story, the 2003 data were out.
I went to EPA's TRI Explorer website (www.epa.gov/triex- plorer) which let me download several sets of mercury data: All the facilities in West Virginia that report discharging mercury into the air or water; all facilities nationwide that report discharging mercury into the air and water; all coal-fired power plants and all chlor-alkali plants.
When I use TRI Explorer, I like to first view my query results on the screen. Then I have the website download them into text files with comma-separated values. I can open these easily in Excel, which is a heck of a lot simpler than messing with FoxPro or Access or some kind of fancy database manager. For those of you who don't do much "computer-assisted reporting" beyond e-mail and web searches, get to know Excel. You can do almost anything you ever need to do with data or numbers with it – and it's easy to learn.
With my data safely in Excel, I just ranked the top emitters of mercury, both in West Virginia and nationally. I had to do some addition first, though. EPA reports air discharges in two categories, stack emissions and fugitive emissions. For every facility, I had Excel add the two together for a total air emissions figure.
During my reporting, I also learned that the state's water pollution permit for the PPG facility was currently up for renewal. So, I decided to find out about PPG's water discharges of mercury.
I did a lot of standard, old-fashioned reporting. I went to the state Department of Environmental Protection and reviewed its permit files going back a couple of rounds of renewals, I interviewed the agency permit engineers and inspectors and – eventually – got the company to give me a tour and several lengthy interviews.
But I also used a computer resource that I don't think we all use enough. I went to EPA's ECHO system, an online site that gives me access to the agency's Permit Compliance System. There, I could download the actual discharge information that PPG reported as part of its water pollution permits. I could compare those figures to their permit limits and find out how often they were out of compliance.
ECHO could be more user friendly. It takes some getting used to. But the data is all there, and it just takes a little cleanup and sorting. Again, I did all of that in Excel, without any fancy codes or programming.
We ended up not just with a nice Sunday take-out piece, but with a Sunday-Monday package that ran on 1A both days. The Sunday story was a basic look at the PPG plant and its mercury pollution, as a local example of one of the biggest little-noticed polluters around. The Monday story was an examination of our state agency's record of poor enforcement at this facility.
The stories weren't published until mid-August, about eight months after the Oceana report came out. The delay was largely because of repeated problems getting a date to visit and tour the PPG plant. But, the additional time gave me a greater chance to learn more about mercury and to play more with the emissions data.
I used a lot of tools to produce these stories – including spending a lot of time reading boring Federal Register notices and a few thick reports about mercury's health effects. And, of course, I visited the PPG plant and talked to the people who work there.
But the guts of both stories came from a couple of pretty simple bits of "computer-assisted reporting" that I did with just my paper's high-speed Internet connection, Explorer and Excel.
Ken Ward is a staff writer for The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue