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Tom Henry: Heaven Needs a Catcher

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Why environmental journalists have a tough but important job.

Commentary by Tom Henry
Spring 2006
I cover the Great Lakes and other Midwestern environmental issues. But when I examine my deepest motivation for doing environmental journalism, my mind wanders off to Seattle — a city I’ve never visited. Let me explain.
Two of the most dramatic anecdotes I’ve come across on this beat occurred in Seattle hospitals. One involved Kim Tolnar, a young central Ohio woman who was fighting off the ravages of leukemia in 1997. The other involved Wade King, a 10-year-old boy from Bellingham, Wash., who had almost all the skin burned off his body in 1999.
Kim was lucky. She was one of several graduates of the River Valley school district near Marion, Ohio who got caught up in a mysterious outbreak of cancer — But she survived. She went to one of the nation’s top cancer centers.
Wade wasn’t so lucky. He and a friend had been caught in a hellish fireball in a creek not far from Wade’s house. So was 18-year-old Liam Wood, who had been fly fishing in another part of the same creek. An investigation showed that a gasoline pipeline had ruptured and that its operator, Olympic Pipeline Co., had not acted promptly enough to prevent the explosion. Liam died instantly.
Wade and his friend, Stephen Tsiorvas, clung onto life for several more hours after the blaze. But all that did was prolong the inevitable.
By morning, all three were dead. Wade’s father, Frank King, a Bellingham car dealer, spent the last hours of his son’s life reminiscing with the boy about their love of baseball. As he dabbed tears from Wade’s eyes, Mr. King tried to comfort his dying son with these words: “Heaven needs a catcher.”
LIVES CHANGED
These two anecdotes have stuck with me not just because they are heart tuggers — but because they changed the lives of many people. Kim and her parents, Kent and Roxanne Krumanaker, returned to central Ohio with a renewed sense of purpose.
They spearheaded a citizens’ campaign to get to the bottom of their local school district’s cancer cluster — something which was initially met with reluctance by the Ohio Department of Health, only to become the largest environmental investigation in Ohio’s history and involve several state and federal agencies, including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Ohio governor’s office and members of Congress.
Eventually, information surfaced about how the district’s middle school complex was built on top of a World War II military dump filled with cancer-causing chemicals.
Numerous other questions were raised about the exposure risk that children faced from other  past military activities at the site, as well as the dumping of various industrial wastes.
Although precise links to the various forms of cancer remain in dispute, the investigation revealed the presence of chemicals known to trigger the rare form of leukemia that Kim had.
And the school board, in researching the deed to the property it had acquired from the government in the early 1960s, found that federal agencies had conveniently overlooked the fact that harsh wartime chemicals had been dumped on the site.
Frank King and his wife, Mary, returned to Bellingham and fought for nationwide reform of underground pipeline laws. After many years of taking on bureaucrats, both on the West Coast and in Washington, they got reform and something else that Frank was adamant about getting — a record fine against the oil and gas industry.
Their efforts have resulted in better funding and more inspections of the nation’s vast network of underground pipelines. The victory that the Kings achieved did not come quickly and without great cost.
The Bellingham explosion — which one witness likened to a napalm bomb from the Vietnam War — is seen as the impetus for national pipeline reform.
ENVIRONMENTAL WRITERS
One thing that has made a lasting impression upon me in researching and writing those stories is how the lives of ordinary citizens were changed because of the ineptitude of others. Neither the Krumanakers nor the Kings were career activists. They had no aspiration to rise through the ranks of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the National Wildlife Federation or any one of the many other groups that make the environment their focus.
Their lives were changed by events that were arguably preventable. Preventable, that is, if those whom we entrust for our health and safety had been doing their jobs. That’s where environmental writers come in. We’re not here to take sides with anyone. We’re not here to align ourselves with an environmental cause. All great environmental writers I know take offense at any suggestion that we’re environmentalists. After all, great cop reporters aren’t called cops, and great political reporters aren’t called politicians.
Journalists are in the business of holding people accountable. Period. As environmental journalists, we’re trusting our instincts and making associations for readers, based on the best available information.
It takes a lot of street savvy to figure out who to trust and who’s trying to sell you a bill of goods. You follow the paper trail, you follow the money trail, and you look for agendas. And you remain inspired — ideally, even insatiable — about your quest for truth and your understanding of both the science and politics of what you’re writing about. Environmental journalism is fascinating to me because it takes my reporting to a higher level.
There are not the clear-cut winners and losers that there are on other beats. It can be mentally exhaustive. But every now and then, I harken back to one of the cases above or recall the encouraging words of others.
I’m not one to be particularly influenced or wooed by celebrities, but I remember the words of Robert Redford at my first Society of Environmental Journalists conference in 1994: “If you’re not going to do it, then who is?” The problem is perspective.
While speaking to MSU’s first institute for Great Lakes writers in 1996, Casey Bukro, one of environmental journalism’s pioneers, talked about how much more subtle pollution is now than when he was researching a ground-breaking project for the Chicago Tribune in the late 1960s.
The sky near Gary, Ind., for example, had an orange and black haze. Lake Erie’s pollution was so thick that you could literally stick your hand in the water and get it covered by filthy, black gunk.
Now, the visuals aren’t so graphic, thank goodness. We have made progress as a nation. That’s undeniable. But so, too, is the fact that we could be doing a lot better given our technological advances in pollution control.
Are we doing what we’re capable of achieving? Is the pace of cleanup, restoration and ecological healing what it should be, given our scientific know-how? If not, then who should be held accountable? The challenge is in explaining that perspective to the layman. As an environmental writer, you have the power to needlessly inflame a community. You also have the power to put it to sleep on an issue it darned well needs to know about. The beat challenges you to be savvy about your research — to trust your instincts, strive for the right context and, through it all, be a compelling storyteller. ˝
Tom Henry created the environment beat at The (Toledo) Blade in 1993 and writes extensively about the Great Lakes, nuclear power, air pollution and North America’s biggest tree pest, the emerald ash borer. He is also a graduate of the Knight Center’s 1996 Great Lakes Environmental Journalism Training Institute. He may be reached at thenry@theblade.com.

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