In an editorial from the Birmingham News on July 9, 2011, once again the editorial board missed the mark of accuracy, and either failed to gather the known facts or purposefully spun the the issue of the Walter Coke contamination in north Birmingham. Either way, the idea of verify first and print second is absent in our state media.
The editorial started out in the right direction and raised the importance of testing new and proposed school sites before construction begins. It's unthinkable that the Birmingham School Board and the City of Birmingham would embark on erecting a new school, especially in an area of years of heavy industry, without doing an environmental assessment first. They were forewarned about the existing problems as far back as 1989.
An ounce of prevention would have been well worth the proverbial pound of cure for students attending the Hudson K-8 school in Collegeville. The CBS 42 series "Deadly Deception" (DD) has been following the Walter Coke contamination story in north Birmingham for months now, and once again, print media is slow to catch up to the fast moving train of hard-hitting investigative reporting that CBS 42 has led with.
What makes the mistakes by the BNED so disappointing is that CBS' series has done the work for them, and all it takes to run an accurate editorial is to spend a little time looking through the video reports from Sherri Jackson and Ken Lass, lead reporters for the DD series. We wonder if they even bothered, based on their editorial, and hope that they did not rely too heavily on press releases and conversations with Walter Coke and Birmingham officials in forming their print opinion.
Here's what they got wrong:
"Walter Coke has been under an EPA enforcement order since 1989, so the agency can require Walter Coke to perform testing and cleanup, which the company is doing voluntarily now."
When you are under an enforcement order, clean up is not voluntary. It's ordered, as in you have to do this. Walter Coke has spit out the same angle; "we are doing the remediation on our own motivation to be a good neighbor."
"-- arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or benzo(a)pyrene -- are associated with Walter Coke," said the EPA's Brian Holtzclaw, although a spokesman for the company said they can come from a number of sources, "even nonindustrial sources, other than us."
Still, Walter Coke is doing its part and voluntarily paying to replace soil at Hudson K-8 and residential properties in the area where high levels of contamination were found.
'Voluntarily doing their part' is a repetition of repeating the illusion that the company is 'doing the right thing just because.' It's interesting they allow the company to slip in the possibility that 'something else' may be causing the contamination besides the coke plant that has been operating at that site since 1967. Walter Coke even went so far as to blame the residents in the area for some of the contamination in previous correspondence with the EPA, read: "non-industrial sources." CBS included those documents in their series, all it would have taken to find them was for someone on the BNED to bother to look.
While Birmingham school officials said they didn't know about the contamination and didn't conduct environmental tests, they should know better now.
Yes they should, but they did know and CBS 42 made that clear in their previous segments on DD. Birmingham School Superintendent, Dr. Craig Witherspoon knew about the contamination in 2010, according to a document from the EPA, and he did nothing to inform the parents despite being asked to do so. The City of Birmingham also had to know prior to construction because of the 1989 order from the EPA documenting the contamination in the area. Why is the editorial board unable to put two and two together and report it decorously?
The most recent soil tests at Hudson showed "unacceptable levels" of contamination, said Holtzclaw, which led Walter Coke to strip out six inches of soil, put down a vapor barrier, fill in with new soil and resod the contaminated area. Soil testing will continue.
The contaminated soil can and should be replaced we agree, but if the source of the contamination persists recontamination of the 'new soil' is certain and inevitable. Considering that it took decades for action to begin on any remedial action, it's not a stretch to presume additional remediation will not be timely.
"If the pollution is coming to the soil...you can clean up that individual soil. but it's still going to be getting dirty and polluted so you gotta look at the source of the air pollution."---Dr. Anne Turner-Henson.
Despite the residents calling for the school to be closed, the EPA is incredulously claiming that's not necessary, and the residents remain unhappy with the over-their-heads technical speak coming from the Jefferson County Department of Health:
Completely glossed over and absent from the editorial was the statement of EPA official Holtzclaw who said he was "shocked" that the Hudson K-8 school was built on ground that the EPA had already deemed contaminated. As far as the surrounding areas being safe, that's wide open for debate too, and we'll put that monkey squarely on the back of the EPA who has a nasty habit of raising the levels of acceptable exposure to allow big polluters leeway.The level of chemicals found at Hudson doesn't warrant closing the school, Holtzclaw said, but the testing will continue. Meanwhile, the county health department is monitoring air quality to make sure the school and surrounding areas are safe.
Birmingham News writer Marie Leech included in her story the glaring problem that happens in Alabama and other states, about the lack of a federal mandate that cities test for contamination before building new schools:
For most states, including Alabama, "EPA has recognized over the years that there were no guidelines or oversight when it came to the safety of building school properties," Holtzclaw said.
That led the EPA in November to establish a set of voluntary guidelines for school sites that suggests site reviews, environmental reviews and public involvement.
Environmental testing before schools are built is not required in Alabama, officials say, which could lead to more problems like the one at Hudson.
The BNED did take issue with the nonsense of not testing first, but why did they let the city officials who knew off the hook? If there is something upsetting in this whole ordeal that ought to rank high on the list, although the EPA and ADEM are the most deserving of harsh criticism because they knew first and did nothing for decades. The EPA added insult to injury and failed miserably in making recommendations "voluntary" not federal requirements. However, even if there had been mandatory guidelines, Alabama would have found some way to challenge the legality of it, preventing adoption of the rules until the lengthy legal battle ran it's course.
Bob Morgan director of capitol projects for city schools gets dangerously close to sounding like an utter incompetent when he feigns 'whadda ya want from me, nobody said anything':
Morgan said several community meetings were held when plans for the new school were being drafted, and nobody raised any concerns.
"In fact, everybody in the community said they wanted a new school," he said. "As long as we have people living in the community and sending their children to school, we have to provide them a school to go to."
No one in the community knew they were living in a carcinogenic soup Mr. Morgan or they would have raised the same concerns (and hell) they are raising right now. But the city and state knew. Did you know too? Is it appropriate for you to assign any blame to parents for wanting new schools for their children to attend? We cry foul on that and you too, sir.
The worst transgression continues to be the blase attitude of our media who fail to get the facts straight and present honest stories on matters of tremendous public interest in a timely manner. The information was there since 1989 why didn't anyone in the print media find it?
The new motto of the Birmingham News is "this is our story" and they've taken some flack from some who felt the motto would have been better suited to 'this is your story.' Many are now distrustful of the News and their trend in recent years of filtering news stories with a biased interest, slanted in favor of business, established politicians and deference for certain advertisers endeavors.
Their position seems to have shifted to a predetermined discourse on particular issues that doesn't rock the boat too hard and create a spillage of revenue dollars. Or political tempers.
What took them so long to offer an opinion about the contamination in north Birmingham, and once they did, why does the BNED 'voluntarily' swing at the issue with velvet gloves and allow Walter Coke, the Birmingham School Board and city leaders some leeway? We suspect it's rooted in the bending of news stories and editorials to fit news values, political interests and media logic--the new norm in the age of press releases from governmental and corporate propagandists permeating news rooms.
The end result is more 'churnalism' than journalism.
The end result is more 'churnalism' than journalism.
Children continually being exposed to deadly toxins and city leaders acting dangerously irresponsible is not an issue to come late to reporting on, and if you are going to be tardy, at least make every effort to be 'dressed appropriately' in accuracy.
Anything less is not the real story.