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Toxic waste sites flooded; AP on the scene ahead of EPA

A barbed-wire fence encircles the Highlands Acid Pit, flooded by the nearby San Jacinto River in Highlands, Texas, on Aug. 31, 2017, as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Floodwaters engulfed at least five highly contaminated toxic waste sites near Houston, raising concerns that the pollution may have spread. (AP Photo / Jason Dearen)

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Hurricane Harvey inundated homes, flooded freeways and swamped entire neighborhoods. Florida-based reporter Jason Dearen, who was deployed to Houston to help cover the disaster, knew there might be something else submerged beneath the turbid floodwaters. Superfund sites, some of the nation’s most contaminated places, are scattered along the low-lying Gulf coastline, including in the Houston area.

Dearen had been trying to obtain a copy of a federal study about the risks of flooding at those sites from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but had been stonewalled for two weeks. Harvey’s destruction provided new urgency to his request. For help, he reached out to Washington investigative reporter Michael Biesecker, a fellow member of the AP’s environmental beat team. Through creative reporting that relied on data, collaboration and Dearen’s newfound skills as a boat man, they became the first journalists to report on the extent of flooding at contaminated waste sites in and around Houston. The observations by Dearen and freelance 360-video producer Claudia Prat raised concerns that some of the decades-old toxic stew left over from the oil, gas and chemical industries may have mixed with floodwaters. They also were on the ground – and on the water – before the EPA’s own inspectors. For their efforts, Dearen, Biesecker and Prat win Beat of the Week.

Biesecker got to work after speaking with Dearen about the existence of the risk study and the EPA’s failure to respond to requests for a copy. He emailed and called the agency multiple times,finally escalating the query from the press office to senior political officials at EPA,pressing them to explain why it was being withheld. After four days,the agency released the document. It included a spreadsheet of Superfund sites with codes that corresponded to flood risk. Biesecker analyzed the data and compared it against state data on Superfund sites in the region. After determining which sites were near Houston and in flood zones,he sent the links to Dearen’s phone,directing him to specific locations using Google Maps.

Dearen had the information. But now what? How to get to the sites in a region still mostly underwater? As it happened,the AP had purchased an aluminum boat after Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago. It had been stored in Dallas,unused,ever since but now it was brought to Houston. Dearen was there just after the 5-horsepower outboard motor was taken out of its box. Following a quick tutorial from AP’s technical staff,which supplied him with gas,oil,oars and life vests,he set off to find the first of the sites,the Highlands Acid Pit. His rented U-Haul truck unable to navigate the muddy roads,Dearen recruited locals who hitched the boat trailer to their all-terrain vehicle and then launched the craft in the middle of a flooded street appropriately named Clear Lake Road.

He and Prat recruited another local man to help guide them through the town and to the acid pit,which had been filled in the 1950s with toxic sludge and sulfuric acid from oil and gas operations. As they headed toward the pit,Dearen said they tried to keep the boat in the center of identifiable streets so they wouldn’t strike anything below. “Driving a boat in a place where a boat isn’t supposed to be,I was a little scared,” he said. “The San Jacinto River was flowing very,very fast and there was no way we should be anywhere near it with that little boat and that little motor, so I didn’t want to go down a path and get sucked into the current.”

The teamwork paid off. Ahead was the Highlands Acid Pit,behind a barbed wire fence that was almost entirely under water and a partially submerged No Trespassing sign. Utility poles stood in the background, the currents from high floodwaters rushing around them. Dearen and Prat took pictures and 360-degree video, and interviewed residents worried that the water might be washing contaminants throughout the town. One 62-year-old man recounted being told how dogs running through the pit in years past had the acid “eat the pads off their feet.”

Over the next two days,Dearen went to six more Superfund sites,this time by driving or hiking. All had been flooded at least several feet deep. In Crosby,where floodwaters reached 15 feet and pulled houses off their foundation,he interviewed half a dozen residents who said they hadn’t realized the potential danger posed by two nearby Superfund sites. The last site Dearen visited,Patrick Bayou on the Houston Shipping Channel,smelled strongly of chemicals,forcing Dearen to leave quickly. Before he did, he noticed something that seemed unnatural: fish jumping out of the water constantly.

“AP’s exclusive story was the result of on the ground reporting at Superfund sites … as well as AP’s strong knowledge of these sites and EPA practices. We object to the EPA’s attempts to discredit that reporting by suggesting it was completed solely from ‘the comforts of Washington’ and stand by the work of both journalists who jointly reported and wrote the story.” – Executive Editor Sally Buzbee

AP’s story provoked an angry press release from the EPA,which said the report unfairly implied that the agency was not being responsive to the disaster. It singled out Biesecker personally,for “reporting from the comfort of Washington,” but failed to mention Dearen,whose byline also was on the story and who had been at the sites at great personal risk. Inadvertently,however,the EPA confirmed the AP’s findings – that at least seven Superfund sites were flooded and that the agency’s investigators had yet to visit them in person.

Dearen said the story’s success holds lessons for journalists: “It all goes back to the basics. If you want to get the story,just go there. You can’t do it by phone or with data alone.”

For pressing to obtain information on Superfund sites in the Houston area at risk from floods and then visiting them to witness the effects of Hurricane Harvey,Dearen, Biesecker and Prat share this week’s $500 prize.

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