Commentary

Digging deep into an Oregon environmental scandal takes patient reporting

Here’s how the Oregon Capital Chronicle did the work leading to a recent investigative series.

May 24, 2022 5:30 am

Guadalupe Martinez, of Boardman, worries that contaminated groundwater will affect the health of her family. She raised eight kids in Boardman, mostly on bottled water. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The announcement from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in January was eye-catching.

The agency was fining a polluter $1.3 million for illegally dumping wastewater more than 1,000 times – and over three years.

The agency declared those to be “serious violations of water quality regulations.”

And, it said, the polluter “has not been doing its part” to limit pollution.

This was no industrial giant ignoring Oregon’s environmental ethos.

This was another government body – the Port of Morrow in Boardman.

Investigative project

At the Oregon Capital Chronicle, we sensed there was much more than a one-day headline here.

We elected to devote our limited resources to a careful, deep investigation into the matter. The objective was to find out how these violations occurred, how long they had been going on, and what the state had done to stop them.

Let me explain how we did that work, which so far has resulted in two investigative reports. We want you to understand how we do our work. We want you to trust the reporting. The most recent investigative report published last week: Water contamination worsened as DEQ went easy.

Alex Baumgartner, who reports on environmental issues, took the lead after the January announcement.

“My first thought was – three years? Was someone asleep at the wheel?” she wrote in explaining her initial reaction to the press release.

This is the kind of project the Capital Chronicle was born to do. Here, we saw a duty to hold government officials accountable, to see if they had done their duty.

Quickly, it became evident this would be a tough investigation. Fortunately, we had reserves to link up with Alex. Two University of Oregon journalism students – Cole Sinanian and Jael Calloway – had been assigned to us for continued training through the Catalyst Journalism Program.

Meantime, Deputy Editor Lynne Terry and political reporter Julia Shumway picked up extra work to keep our news report flowing.

The investigative team’s work proceeded on the two basic prongs of investigative reporting – documents and interviews.

Alex made a series of public records requests to DEQ and the Port of Morrow. Under Oregon law, anyone – not just reporters – has a legal right to see all but confidential government records.

Documents are vital for several reasons. They help assure accuracy. They are better over time than human memory. And they record actions taken by government officials – an unchangeable history.

Interviews are just as important. They provide sources the opportunity to educate reporters on complex matters, to explain their own actions, and to address findings revealed by documents.

Getting public records

One of the first discoveries was that violations by the Port of Morrow stretched back for years, but there had been no public announcements.

 “I found there had been many over the years that weren’t on the DEQ enforcement database” online, Alex explained.

Then there was understanding the science of wastewater, the difference between nitrogen and nitrates and water quality standards.

The documents were laced with technical language – and mysterious acronyms. The team had no choice but to be diligent, dive in, and learn the lingo.

Alex said that over the weeks she found she “could speak fluently and understand fully what the DEQ staff, scientists and even farmers were talking about when they were talking about FMRs, WCPFs, MOAs, PENs, RWUP, WQSIS, OM&M, etc.”

Cole and Jael did a great deal of the reporting to understand those technical issues.

“Only after painstakingly combing through the 50-page 2020 LUBGWMA Action Plan and the Port of Morrow’s equally laborious business plan did the scale of the institutional failure to regulate the port come into full focus,” Cole wrote.

And Jael had to develop expertise in nitrates, studying scientific reports. She cites a moment of pride that rewarded her persistence.

“I was able to get through a large and complex document and break it down so any reader would be able to understand the significance behind nitrate levels and the dangerous effects an excess amount can cause,” Jael said.

With the reporting well advanced, the team drafted its first report, published that, and then turned to its second report.

All of it took time – and elaborate vetting.

At the Capital Chronicle, reporters are required to match every figure, every quote against their original source material. No guessing. No “that looks right.” We want it accurate – period.

One further step is reporters provide selected excerpts of a draft to those being quoted or written about. This isn’t a usual step in today’s journalism, but we consider it essential to not only getting the facts right but to fairly present them.

Sources often use these fact-checking emails to elaborate on points they want to make. But they also flag crucial factual errors. We don’t allow sources, however, to amend their quotes or otherwise insert commentary.

Now, the team is taking a short break and then will return to work on Part 3.

This sort of work isn’t easy and it doesn’t come cheap.

We have reporters to pay, the cost of traveling to places like Boardman, of hiring freelance photographers to illustrate such projects. Sometimes, there are fees for public records.

Reporting resources

If you value this sort of Oregon-grown watchdog reporting, you can help.

We’re a nonprofit. We don’t sell ads. And our stories are free to everyone. In fact, other Oregon media outlets regularly publish our stories, amplifying their own coverage of state government and politics.

This work is funded entirely by donors – foundations and individuals who believe in the value of trusted information.

You can help buy that next tank of gas, cover the cost of the next batch of records, or even help us grow our staff with a tax-deductible contribution. A donation of $200 helps with gas. A donation of $1,000 would help buy more staff time. (Join in here.)

We’re here to serve Oregon with this kind of in-depth investigative work that is increasingly rare. With your help, we can do even more.

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Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.

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