Taking the Chaos out of Your Disaster Coverage

October 15, 2014

Reporter's Toolbox


Disasters involving burning chemicals, such as the fertilizer plant explosion that ripped through West, Texas, in 2013, pose additional risks beyond the normal dangers of a structural fire for reporters covering them.
                                                             Photo: (cc) Mike Stone /
                                                          A Name Like Shields Can
                                                 Make You Defensive, via Flickr

Disasters challenge even the best reporters. Events are chaotic, answers are hard to come by and sources often are obscured by bureaucracy or the chaos of the moment.

But there are ways to work past that confusion. For instance, when a spill occurs, NOAA's top emergency responder Charlie Henry says here are the five questions to ask:

● What was spilled?
● Where is it going?
● What's at risk?
● How will it hurt?
● What can be done to mitigate?

So, here’s an array of things to know and ways to find them out when covering a disaster on your beat.

What materials are known to be involved?

The "Right-To-Know Act" makes some information available via the Toxics Release Inventory and Tier II program (www2.epa.gov/epcra and http://rtknet.org/):

● Toxics Release Inventory: Publicly and easily available on-line. This provides information on some, but not all, industries in your community. The TRI lists some of the chemicals routinely released into the land, air and water, along with potential health effects and known violations. It’s interactive, so you can enter street address/zip code and get a map with links to information about facilities in that area.
● Tier II data: Public, but not easily available. You'll need to go to your local fire station or other first responder to see this. It is the information that industry is required to provide first responders. It will tell you what's stored on-site, where it's stored and the maximum quantity. Industries are required to provide this only to their local first responders – not neighboring fire departments, etc., so mutual aid first responders may not have the benefit of this information.

What are the properties and risks of the materials involved?

Here’s what you can check into on deadline:

New Jersey Fact Sheets: Good source for all states, not just New Jersey. Provides the material safety datasheets that manufacturers issue to those buying their chemicals. Proprietary information is excluded from safety sheets.
● CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Website describes chemicals and their effects on human health. This is the agency that publishes ToxFAQs.
● EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, IRIS: Looks at potential human health risks from exposure to environmental contaminants.

Then, when you have more time, you can search peer-reviewed journals for stories that have summarized research about the contaminant. Also, look for case studies. And, check out:

● EPA Title V annual air permits: Required by the Clean Air Act, these permits regulate emissions by major industries. The permits detail the types and amounts of some emissions. Your industries' Title V permits may be obtained from your local air quality regulators, at the state or federal level, depending upon how your state is regulated.
● Inspection and compliance orders: Regulated industries must obtain permits to release pollutants into the environment. These permits, and the corresponding inspections and compliance orders, are available from state or federal regulators, and in some cases, at the local level. This is another avenue to find out about documented problems at a site.
EPA ECHO: Enforcement and Compliance History Online: Searchable database of enforcement actions. Note: Make sure to verify all information, as explained in this previous SEJournal Reporter’s Toolbox. It may not provide a complete history, either. 
● Also, develop sources you trust and contact your colleagues on SEJ-TALK@LISTS.SEJ.ORG.

But the key takeaway is, in the immediate aftermath of a spill/release, first search the TRI for what might have been released and then go to the New Jersey Fact Sheet for information about that substance.

Know your common chemicals.

Familiarize yourself with the main categories of contaminants and you'll be better prepared when something happens in your community. Here are some common contaminant categories:

● Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Most common types: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. Any spill associated with oil and gas will contain benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. These evaporate easily and quickly and some can be very toxic.
● Semi-volatile compounds: Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, benzo(a)pyrene, napthalene. These don't evaporate as quickly as volatiles and can persist in the environment for decades.
● Heavy metals: Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, vanadium. These will persist in the environment for a very long time.
● Pesticides: DDT, chlordane, 2,4,5-T, atrazine, carbamates
● Dioxins, furans and PCBs: 2,3,7,8-TCDD, 1,2,3,7,8-PeCDD
● Radioactive components: Radium 226, radium 228, uranium 238, radon gas.

Agencies and resources involved in emergency response

● EPA's National Response Center: This is the federal center that serves as the clearinghouse for all major spills and releases. While the initial emergency call during a crisis will go to local first responders, the law requires those responsible to contact the National Response Center about spills and releases.
The center fields an average of 20,000 calls or electronic notifications a year and posts them online.  As an aside, the EPA has monitoring aircraft that flies over spills and large events such as the Super Bowl.
NOAA Office of Response and Restoration: In the 1970s, when it became obvious oil spills were becoming larger and more complex, the Coast Guard turned to NOAA to provide scientific support for cleanups that involve major rivers and water bodies such as the Ohio River, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. The NOAA office helps with about 170 oil and chemical spills each year and trains more than 1,000 first responders annually. Reporters can take advantage of this training, which is provided several times a year.
● Local Emergency Planning Committee: Communities are required to have emergency response plans in place, and the plans are public documents. Because of the post-9/11 surge in Homeland Security funding, local first responders have become better equipped, so they're less reliant on the federal government and are more prone to take the lead in a cleanup (the feds still have to be notified). This is one reason it's important to get to know local officials and local plans.
● Nuclear power plants: In a nuclear power plant crisis, the utility is responsible for addressing problems on site and for monitoring radiation releases. Local and state officials make decisions about evacuation and sheltering in place. To track radiation releases nationwide, check the EPA's RadNet,

Other ways to get up to speed on nuclear power plants: Learn to use the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ADAMS database. Attend the NRC's annual public review of your local nuclear power plant – which will also give you a chance to meet plant personnel and NRC staff. Ask for a tour of your nuclear plant, and ask to participate in or observe the large-scale drills that nuclear plants are required to do every two years. Learn ahead of time which agency is responsible for which piece of the response in a nuclear accident.

For an overview of how a disaster would be handled, do an internet search on the NRC's Backgrounder on Emergency Preparedness at Nuclear Power Plants, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Emergency Planning and Preparedness for Nuclear Disasters, the Nuclear Energy Institute's fact sheet on Emergency Preparedness at Nuclear Energy Facilities and www.ready.gov/nuclear-power-plants.

Additionally, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists is a source many reporters use for an outside, but expert, perspective on nuclear power. Lochbaum has worked in industry and at the NRC. The industry group, NEI, also will make someone available to walk you through a general idea of what is happening, or at least of the processes involved.

Command structure during disasters

Learn who is in charge and how authority is delegated, and this will better assure your questions are more quickly answered.

As a result of lessons from past disasters, a command structure has been standardized under the National Incident Management System. It's a professional, one-size-fits-all organizational chart and it pulls in people from all levels and many branches of government, as well as private industry and nonprofits.

These entities run drills, so that when a disaster occurs, personnel can parachute in from around the country and know immediately their roles, meeting schedules and where they fit in the organizational structure. The incident commander has authority over people who might otherwise outrank him (including politicians). The release of information to the media and public typically is handled by a Joint Information Center (called a JIC). In a big crisis, public information officers from around the country will come in to help out. For smaller crises, a local elected official or career government person may be appointed to handle the media.

The goal of these JICs is for all the entities to collaborate and speak with one voice. Sometimes this can facilitate the release of information, but just as often, it's an impediment because the flow of information is dependent on the competence of a single spokesperson and that person's access to information.

Tip: Try to interview the deputy incident commander. You won't be able to talk with the incident commander because that individual is swamped. But his or her shadowing deputy may be willing to talk with you.

During a large-scale disaster, there may be multiple incident command-type centers. During the Missouri River flood of 2011, cities established their own, but the Army Corps of Engineers also had a command center. Each command center had its own media plan.

Learn the jargon

Know the language, as well as the stages of a response, so you can frame your questions correctly.

For example, there's a difference between monitoring and sampling. Monitoring is done immediately to provide first responders a sense of the situation. It's not quality controlled and not something other than a first quick glance.

Sampling data is more systematically collected and quality controlled because it's the data that will be used to guide the cleanup and make decisions about public health. At best, sampling results might be available in 48 hours, if expedited. However, the results could take 10 days or more.

If the response has moved to the sampling process, don't get hung up on the lack of data; you can't rush it. Instead inform your public about the process of data collection and the timeline for release.

Whose fault is the spill? The cleanup typically is handled by one set of workers while the investigation and enforcement is handled by others. Those doing the cleanup probably can't address the issue of fault.

Also, that information could be hard to come by, no matter what, because it's being gathered for future legal action and the government will want to protect its eventual legal case against the responsible party.

Watch for the caveats:

● Chemicals have different properties and may react differently from spill to spill. An action properly taken in one cleanup may be inappropriate in another. First responders have a saying: No two oil spills are alike, so be careful about generalizing.
● Some disasters pose multiple threats, so there may be no right thing to do except let the disaster take its course (i.e., evacuate nearby neighborhoods and let a fire burn out).
● Collateral danger may not be immediately obvious: During the BP oil spill, first responders focused on cleanup in the Gulf, but the air was contaminated too, so pollutants were inhaled by people in on-shore communities.
● Realize that no one really knows what's going on at first. Even first responders may not know what they're dealing with. Be wary of initial reports, and convey to the public the uncertainty surrounding information.
● Expect your editors to pressure you to match reports by other media, but resist reporting anything you can't verify.
● Sources of information, including official ones such as the TRI and Tier II data, are often incomplete or in error.
● Just because you smell something doesn't mean it's dangerous and just because you can't smell something doesn't mean you're safe.
● Evacuation routes may be the same route emergency responders are taking in.
● Just because the federal government is involved does not mean the federal government is in charge. Emergency response starts at the local level. Covering severe weather

The National Weather Service has meteorologists in local offices scattered across the country and available to answer your questions. The agency also will embed meteorologists in the incident command center to help when that's appropriate.

Be careful when using a forecast from the area where a disaster is unfolding, because the weather at the disaster site may be different from what is provided for the general area. Fires, for example, can generate their own winds.

To reach a local weather service office or for details on severe weather in local areas, click on the National Weather Service's interactive map at weather.gov

Nancy Gaarder is a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, and organized a workshop on disaster coverage at the SEJ annual conference in New Orleans in 2014, from which much of this material was drawn (more here ). She is also co-chair of the upcoming SEJ 2015 annual conference in Norman, OK.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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