Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Commitment to Uncovering Local Environmental Issues

toxic sites map/North

The headlines in a recent newspaper series unveiled a shocking story: “DEP let poison flow for decades” … “North Jersey riddled with failed cleanups” … “Desperate to move, but bound to stay; Residents say homes in Superfund site are worthless.”

Got your attention? That’s the intent of the “Toxic Landscape” series that The Record, a daily newspaper in northern New Jersey, has instituted as an on-going investigative look at industrial contamination lingering in local communities in its coverage area. Here’s the opening salvo in a three-part expose by Record environmental writer Scott Fallon that burst from the front pages recently:

A highly toxic industrial chemical has been spreading under a Garfield neighborhood for almost three decades, slowly seeping into homes and threatening the health of thousands.

Residents live in fear that hexavalent chromium is infiltrating their basements, that their families could get cancer and that their property values have been destroyed.

And state officials allowed it all to happen.

What occurred in Garfield over the course of 28 years is a story of an environmental oversight system that failed the people it was supposed to protect. In instance after instance, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showed poor judgment, lax enforcement and bureaucratic indifference to an emerging public health threat…

After detailing the spreading contamination through groundwater under an urban neighborhood and the startling lack of government action even after a city firehouse was closed in 1993 due to the hazardous substance seeping into the basement, Fallon’s report widened the scope of the problem to encompass many more communities:

“Garfield is one of the more egregious examples of failed environmental oversight. But all over North Jersey there are botched cleanups caused by questionable decisions, bureaucratic indifference or both,” Fallon wrote. "’There are Garfields in literally every corner of this state,’ said Robert Spiegel, head of Edison Wetlands, an environmental advocacy group. ‘The system for cleaning thousands of sites has been dysfunctional, chaotic, and it just doesn’t work,’" Fallon’s report added, after listing a number of failed, incomplete or barely ever started contamination investigations and cleanups in North Jersey towns that have been periodically in and out of the news.

The back story behind this unusual newspaper series—which began last year with a detailed examination of unfinished cleanups at several federal Superfund sites across the region—is a recognition by The Record’s editors and publisher that hazardous waste cleanups habitually stall when there’s no on-going, in depth news coverage.

That realization was crystallized by a previous investigative series in 2005 called “Toxic Legacy,” which showed how the US Environmental Protection Agency allowed Ford Motor Company to claim it had cleaned up a toxic waste dump in the late 1980s in Ringwood, NJ. The newspaper investigation, which I participated in as a reporter, uncovered the fact that the officially approved cleanup barely scratched the surface of buried mounds of lead-based paint sludge and other potentially cancer-causing contamination that local residents, environmental groups and newspaper reporters found and made public.

A far more substantial cleanup has taken place since that investigative series, with every step reported by local newspapers, sometimes bird-dogged by national news organizations and further exposed to a wide television audience by a documentary shown on HBO titled “Mann v. Ford,” after the name of a lawsuit by residents of the affected residential area.

Yet, despite the residents’ lawsuit, the renewed cleanup in Ringwood stalled once the initial flurry of news coverage subsided. Record editors then expanded the “Toxic Legacy” coverage into on-going, frequent update reports published under the same label.

“The [initial] story was about the government’s failure to live up to its promise,” Tim Nostrand, The Record’s editor for investigative projects, told a gathering in September at Columbia University’s Journalism School that honored new and past winners of the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. The “Toxic Legacy” investigative team led by Nostrand won the 2006 Grantham Prize, among a number of other national journalism awards.

Once congratulations on winning major awards are collected, news organizations usually ease off covering that topic and move on. But Record editors found their readers appreciated the “Toxic Legacy” coverage. And they found that government officials slipped back into old habits once that coverage eased off. “We did a five-year look back and found history repeating itself. We’re now staying on top of that,” Nostrand added in his account of how one investigative project morphed into a long-term commitment.

On top of reporting every new twist and turn in the Ringwood Superfund site case, six years after publishing a series that shook up the EPA, Record editors have assigned municipal reporters to dig into environmental contamination issues in the towns they cover, Nostrand told the audience of award-winning journalists, journalism professors and students at Columbia. Previously, as was my experience during a more than 20-year career at The Record, municipal reporters often ignored environmental issues unless they were prepared to wrangle with editors to provide time from the relentless pressure to file daily news stories in order to dig into often complex, hidden contamination problems.

The latest in The Record’s remarkable “Toxic Landscape” local reports rolled out this week. The first day’s headline conveyed a double drum-roll: “DPW cleanup tab put at $200,000; Decades-old pollution ‘ignored’ mayor says.” And thus residents of Dumont, NJ were told about the mounting costs of inaction by local officials and the state environmental protection agency in dealing with contamination from leaking gasoline storage tanks at the municipal Department of Public Works property dating back to the 1980s.

A Dumont Borough Council subcommittee trying to get to the bottom of why nothing was done, despite a DEP order in 1992 to do a cleanup, got some astounding responses, Record reporter Rebecca D. O’Brien found. A former councilman who served in 2004-2009 said “We never discussed any issues of any gasoline spills or any contamination down at that site,” O’Brien reported in her second-day article.

Another former councilman who served in 2003-2008 put this kind of investigative story into glaring perspective, when he testified that “he didn’t even know about the DPW contamination until he read about it in the newspaper,” O’Brien added.

So that readers can follow the newspaper’s probing into the tangled, toxic mess underlying much of the Garden State, The Record offers on its web site a special projects section titled “Toxic Landscape: Tracking contaminated sites in North Jersey,” which provides interactive maps and hotlinks to an extensive list of investigative articles on local contamination sites.

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