Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park — which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.

InvestigateWest co-hosts stormwater forum that shows civic discourse is still possible

InvestigateWest reached a milestone this week when we co-hosted a large public-policy forum on the State Capitol grounds in Olympia.

The subject was stormwater, the polluted rainwater runoff I’ve been writing about for perhaps a decade now, with particular emphasis on its effects on Puget Sound, where it is the largest source of toxics.  For two years running environmentalists have unsuccessfully advanced plans in Olympia to raise money to deal with the problem. More bills are pending in the current legislative session, so it seemed like a logical time to raise the issue’s profile and encourage a frank discussion.

That we got. And while we never expected to resolve the entire issue at a lunchtime forum, it did feel like progress to hear all the panelists acknowledge that stormwater is a difficult problem that somehow we are going to have to deal with collectively.

Seven legislators and several legislative aides joined environmentalists, business lobbyists and at least three journalists in the audience of 70. Overall it had the tone of a civil discussion with respect for all points of view – the kind of civic discourse often lacking in this age so seemingly dominated by vitriol. Once upon a time, news organizations did more of this kind of thing. The presidential debates of 1956 and 1960 may be the best-known examples. Journalists do still occasionally organize these events, but it seems to me that more of this sort of discussion could be helpful to citizens and policy-makers on all sides of many issues.

Co-hosting were Sightline Institute and Washington Policy Center, the two think tanks that have most carefully followed the stormwater story in Washington. I was fortunate to work with Brandon Houskeeper, a policy analyst at WPC, and Lisa Stiffler, journalism fellow at Sightline.

Investigating the health of a community

The Duwamish is not only Seattle’s only river, and the original home of its first Native American people, it is now also an industrial waterway classified as one of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites and one of the few federal Superfund cleanup sites in the country to bisect a major urban area.

Through this project, InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith examined how this confluence of factors – location, history and industry – has shaped the health of the communities that have grown up around the river. While reams of data have looked at the health of the river, much less is known about the health of the people who depend on or live near its waters. Smith was a 2010 recipient of the national California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern Calfornia’s Annenberg School of Journalism. This project was done in conjunction with her fellowship and also appeared in www.seattlepi.com.

Carol, an experienced health journalist, was able to dig deep and find some fascinating public health data to illustrate what living in a Superfund site can do to the people who call it home.

Mental health cuts slash through safety net

Sadly, it’s often a high-profile crime committed by someone with untreated or inadequately treated mental illness that puts the issue of spending for mental health care back in front of the public. But as headlines fade, so does public willingness to face the consequences of cutbacks on mental health spending. InvestigateWest, together with 10 other reporting centers around the country, drilled down to see what state budget cuts were doing to the mental health safety net.

What we found was disturbing: Beds closing at hospitals, short-term treatment centers, and group homes. Caseloads rising for already over-taxed mental healthcare workers. The population of people with mental illness in jails, emergency rooms and on the street escalating.

The way these stories make the news also frustrates those who have worked hard to erase the stigma of mental illness in society. A huge number of people live with mental illness, and almost none of them commit crimes. The vast majority are not violent. Many, however, do need help and support to stay in school, get jobs, and maintain healthy relationships.

In short, the cuts are quickly dismantling many of the gains that mental health advocates have fought for decades to establish — access to treatment, support and housing that helps people with mental illness stay well and able to function in their families and communities. As many of those we interviewed in our story pointed out, the short-term cost savings of the budget cuts likely will wind up costing taxpayers more over the long run.  You can see the national picture in this story from Amy Biegelsen at the Center for Public Integrity.

Journalists cooperated to produce package on dangerous refinery chemical

Today’s stories on the use of super-toxic hydrofluoric acid at oil refineries are the product of an interesting new way in which in-depth news increasingly is being reported.

It’s called collaboration — a path that was viewed with suspicion by many journalists until the current media maelstrom slashed the number of reporters out there turning over rocks on behalf of the public.

That sort of in-depth journalism increasingly is in short supply. But those of us still producing it are finding it really helps if we talk to each other and — this would have been revolutionary not that many years ago — actually work together.

In this case, the Center for Public Integrity teamed up with ABC News to investigate the use of this super-toxic agent at 50 of the nation’s 148 refineries. When their investigation was close to done, the center contacted regional reporting centers such as InvestigateWest to take an in-depth look at refineries in their regions.

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.

As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.

When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”

I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.

New partnerships for InvestigateWest

InvestigateWest teamed up with KING 5 TV, producing an in-depth look at air safety in the skies over Washington state.

The story might open your eyes next time you drag that carry-on aboard the plane. On average, more than 150 close calls are happening every day, KING’s Jim Forman reported. 

A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle, InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure reported.  Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.

Reporting by both Forman and McClure found that NASA’s reporting system, designed to identify and prevent problems, also serves as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for reporting pilots and controllers.

“If you cause a car crash, drivers can’t get off the hook simply for admitting fault. But in the case of pilots or other air safety professionals, if they are willing to admit they were in the wrong, the FAA won’t hold the report against them,” Foreman reported. “It also waives fines and penalties including the most serious — revoking a pilot’s license.”

Part one of Forman’s report includes a video presentation with special graphics highlighting the risks posed by near-miss collisions. Part two of the report focuses on the most congested airspace over Washington state.

InvestigateWest is looking for development talent!

Thanks to funding from The Brainerd Foundation that is allowing InvestigateWest to invest in building our organization, we are very excited about growing to meet our needs. We have the opportunity to bring on board development and marketing expertise that will provide resources to grow!

InvestigateWest is a nonprofit, public service investigative journalism organization. We produce powerful journalism that makes communities better, and you can see examples of what we do on this Web site. InvestigateWest is dedicated to enhancing democracy and community in the Pacific Northwest through journalism produced for the common good.

The right candidate for this position is a development professional with experience working for a startup. Candidates should have experience identifying, cultivating a Candidates be self-starters, and bring experience successfully soliciting five-figure (and above) major gifts. Strong abilities to cultivate and network with others are a must. The successful candidate will have a proven background, with at least three years development and fund-raising experience, and a zeal for what InvestigateWest is all about.

To apply, please submit a cover letter,three references, a 1-2 page writing sample or a marketing or grant writing piece, to rhibbard@invw.org.

The Brainerd Foundation is a Northwest-focused family foundation that provides grants to strengthen the ability of nonprofits, communities, and decision-makers to protect our region’s air, land and water.

How non-profit journalism is changing the “news ecosystem”

InvestigateWest’s stories on msnbc.com this week outlined how a super-toxic second generation of rat poisons is mysteriously seeping into the environment, and how the government took a generation to pass rules to keep these rodenticides out of the hands of young children. That might have remained a buried and unnoticed piece of history if not for a new movement sweeping America: nonprofit journalism. It’s an important force that is likely to become a key part of what folks are calling an evolving “news ecosystem” in this country.

This week’s pairing of the efforts of two nonprofit journalism entities with the for-profit msnbc.com is an example of the kind of experimentation that’s becoming common. I wrote the rat-poisons story for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia that I helped to found in 2009.

The story idea and the assignment came from Marla Cone, editor at Environmental Health News, another nonprofit journalism center, whose mission is to advance public understanding about environmental health issues. Cone won many accolades as a longtime environmental reporter at the Los Angeles Times before joining EHN in 2008. (Her book “Silent Snow” documents the shockingly high levels of toxic contamination in the Arctic.)

Too much information? Here’s how to separate truth from spin

How To Find Truth Within the Information Overload

Put this one on your calendars: Thursday, Dec. 16, from 7:30 to 9 pm

Amid all the anxiety over the “death of newspapers” and the reliability of a crowdsourced encyclopedia and opinion-based “news,” seeking the truth remains the purpose of journalism—and the object for those who consume it. Veteran journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of Blur, offer a guide to navigating our modern media terrain, discerning what is reliable, and determining which facts (and whose opinions) to trust.  Presented by The Town Hall Center for Civic Life and University Book Store in association with the Washington News Council and Journalism That Matters. The panel is moderated by former Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher. Series media sponsorship provided by PubliCola. Series supported by The Boeing Company Charitable Trust and the RealNetworks Foundation.

For more information, go to Town Hall, or buy tickets ($5) at brownpapertickets.com, or call 800/838-3006.

Learn more about Blur here.