State & local news

Like any news beat, environmental journalism has a structure that involves routine contact with state and federal agencies as well as industry and non-governmental organizations.   In terms of :

I. Emergencies, spills and incidents  — State police, department of transportation,  local emergency management agencies.

  • In case of a spill:  use or bring the  DOT Emergency Response Guidebook   (also available as a cell phone app).
  • What to look for:
    • 4-digit Identification Number corresponding with chemical name;
      … which allows you to find the … 
    • 3-digit Action Guide number for how to handle the spill.
  • On the scene or by phone: Ask about fatalities, injuries, damage or other impacts of pollution / spill incident; type of material spilled (ask or look for DOT number); cause of incident; size of spill; measures taken to dilute or contain spill.
  • People:  On site – Incident manager;  Off site, state police, state DOT press office;  federal PHMSA  (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration).
  • Evaluation & follow up:  Local Emergency Management Plan  —  Was the type of material identified quickly and were appropriate measures taken? How well did agencies coordinate? Was the LEMP plan followed? Who is on the committee that coordinates this plan? Who are the citizen / media representatives? What do they say?  Could similar emergencies take place? What more is being done to prepare?  You might want to use an EPA guidance document, Measuring Progress in Chemical Safety. 
  • Example:  In Charleston, WV, in 2014,  a chemical called methyl cyclohexane (DOT ID #2296; Action guide #128) contaminated the water supply.  For the first three days, authorities told residents to boil their water. They did not tell the public that  the chemical has ground-hugging vapors, is highly explosive, and does not mix in water.  This was information that could have easily been found in the DOT/PHMSA  Guidebook.  As a result, over 100 residents were admitted to emergency rooms with respiratory problems or skin burns.

II. Environmental regulators  — State DEQ or DEP or DHEC

The most significant source of government action in a state or region is the state environmental agency, often called the Dept. of Environmental Quality (as in VA, WY, NE, MI, OR and others) or Dept. of Environmental Protection (as in NY, PA, NJ, FL and others); or Dept. of Health and Environmental Control (SC).

These agencies exist to enforce federal laws at the state level, however reluctantly.  Usually the agencies have three main divisions:

  • Air — Enforces Clean Air Act by inspecting power plants and mobil source (auto & truck) inspection stations; grants permits for power plants and other emissions sources.
    • Regulated emissions:  Sulfur dioxide (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx); ground-level ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM), especially at 10 and 2 micron level (PM10, PM2); air toxics (BTX compounds); metals (especially mercury from coal plants); and others.
    • Enforces special regulations in non-attainment areas (cities with lots of smog).
  • Water — Enforces Clean Water Act —   through National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), creating a national list of impaired waters.  Impairments can come from:
  • Solid & Hazardous Wastes — Regulates solid waste landfills and chemicals on the EPCRA, CERCLA and CAA lists.
  • Toxic release inventory — Every facility with an air, water or waste permit has to estimate its annual toxic releases. These are available through the EPA.
  • Misc – Renewable energy permits (VA); Land & Recreation (FL); Coastal Council (SC);

Standards:   A table of ground water and drinking water standards is available from the US EPA.

Example:  In December, 2008, Waterkeeper activists and scientists with Appalachian State University took samples of a coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority site.  They found arsenic levels in the river at .356 parts per million (aka mg/L — see Measurements, this site). Compare that to the 0.010 parts per million level in the US EPA table of ground water standards.   To clarify the comparison, you might want to use parts per billion, so multiply by 1,000 and:   River levels of arsenic 346  parts per billion, which is well over the 10 parts per billion standard.  The episode is often seen as a turning point for science and environmental journalism, in that the ability to seek out the technical details of pollution problems would no longer be confined to government and industry.

Example: In 2016, the Virginia Dept. of Environmental Quality released general information and some details about contamination of the New River by PCBs (polychlorinated biphynls).  However, in a public hearing, DEQ officials responded to reporters questions with specific information about PCB hot spots, including several that were many thousands of times above permissible levels.  One reading from a public park in Radford, Va. was 4,739 ppb, as opposed to the standard of  0.5 ppb.  Many others were in the thousands of parts per billion.  The open question, at the end of this information process, is whether and how to close down sport fishing on the New River.  That decision is split between two different state agencies (DEQ and Dept. of Health) and has not been taken.

Example:  In March, 2017, the Billings Gazette of Billings, MT published an article (“Is the Big Sky Blowing Smoke?“) that included claims by an Exxon-Mobil refinery that it was virtually pollution free. “The white plumes rising from the refinery are steam from cooling towers.  So it’s not air pollution that’s harmful to the environment, even at the sugar beet factory. ‘That is 99.9-percent water vapor of all the stuff you see coming out,’ said Ray Bode, factory manager at the Western Sugar Cooperative manufacturing facility. An environmental web site, East of Billings, criticized the  article and published a list of Toxic Release Inventory disclosures from Exxon-Mobil that were easily accessible from the EPA.  Included in the list were over 180,000 pounds of toxics, including ammonia, benzene, cyclohexane, cyanide and other pollutants.

What to look for:  Become familiar with the major permit holders and the types of permitted pollution in your region.  If you are concerned about a particular business, industry or other source of pollution, ask for more information about:

  • Permits – Technical data and limits set in the actual  permits.
  • Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs) — The polluter has to test its systems and report monthly to the agency.
  • Inspections – Reports of inspections, stating problems in plants and corrective measures that should be taken; these may lead to …
  • NOVs – Notice of Violations, in which the agency in charges the polluter with exceeding permitted pollution; look for repeated serious violations of permit conditions.
  • Correspondence – Communication between the state agency and the polluter, the public, and / or the federal EPA;
  • Compliance agreements or reports, in cases where NOVs are being rectified;
  • Also note that permits have to be renewed every few years, and if it is a controversial permit, there may be public hearings.
  • Toxic Release Inventory statements. Check several years and check against the lists of toxic chemicals.
  • Staff issues — Often staff at state environmental agencies are under strict orders not to initiate informative activities with the public.  They may tell you, “Im sorry, but we’re not allowed to give that information out to the public.” This does not make them bad guys, but any permit or violations or action taken by a state or federal agency  should be public. Ask whether it might not be best to file Freedom of Information Act request under state or federal laws. They may just give in and give up the information, or they may encourage you to file an FOIA in order to avoid being harassed by their supervisors.  It’s easy to file an FOIA by simply writing a letter asking for the information you want (be specific) and mentioning the FOIA. Always ask for cost estimates in writingbeforehand.   Press or public service groups should also ask for a waiver for costs. State press associations or national journalism organizations will help with advice if needed.
  • Mapping your region — It’s easy to use Google maps to get an overview of environmental issues and problems in your region.  One example is the New River map;  another is a map of mountaintop removal mining sites in West Virginia.
  • Followup — Check up on the impact of regulatory decisions. If an NPDES permit holder keeps getting NOVs (Notices of Violation), find out why they are not in compliance.  Look for ongoing negotiations over compliance agreements.   Be aware of the different levels of files on a single company within a single agency (permit file, DMR & inspection reports, NOV files, compliance orders, correspondence, etc.)

III. Public health departments        

On the local level, the most significant source of government action and least covered organization is the public health department.  It is responsible for monitoring:

  • Drinking water  (Cities and counties answer to the health department with testing;  private wells are tested by the health department).
  • Household septic system permits (This can be surprisingly controversial).
  • Food safety, restaurant inspections.
  • Childhood lead prevention programs (from paint, soil)
  • Public Toxicology (fish advisories, other toxic wastes & hazards)

IV.  State agricultural agencies  — Oversee and regulate use and handling of toxic and hazardous pesticides, herbicides and other pest control chemicals. In many states the agriculture department also regulates gasoline and additives in gasoline.

V. The advocates     

  • Regional offices of national environmental organizations
  • Local / grass roots environmental, conservation, and land preservation groups
  • People affected by changes

The social value of environmental advocacy is that concerns may be expressed in ways that would not be possible for government agencies.  But if the “outrage” exceeds the level of the hazard,  then the social value of advocacy diminishes.  Often it is up to the press to be an arbiter of this difficult risk communication question.