Karen Dorn Steele, an investigative journalist with The Spokesman-Review, broke open the pollution story of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and did ground-breaking work on the Superfund megasites of the Upper Columbia River. For journalism that advanced the common good through the public’s understanding of these pressing issues, Karen Dorn Steele was honored with the Watershed Hero Award on March 2, 2018. The following interview was conducted on February 15 in advance of the honoring event. For images from the honoring event: slide show | photos
Childhood among Journalists in Europe, North Africa
John Osborn (JO): You are the daughter of a Portland journalist who went to work for the Foreign Service as a press attaché. You wound up growing up in Europe and going to high school in Morocco. Then you went to Stanford where you graduated with honors in history, then you became a Congressional staff person in D.C., then a teacher. And then you decided to go into journalism.
Karen Dorn Steele: My dad was a reporter at the Portland Oregonian. He really wanted to see the world and be engaged on a bigger stage. So he took a job with the U.S. Information Agency. He was a press liaison at various American embassies or a press attaché. That put me and my family in touch with lots of journalists all the time as we moved around in Europe and North Africa. By the time we got to Morocco, I was a teenager and a freshman in a French high school. I remember the people who came through there. I met Pierre Salinger and Walter Schoenbrun, who gave me one of his hard hats from a war zone in exchange for one of my Morocco poems. I also met a wonderful woman named Margaret Pope with the BBC. She actually wore men’s clothing in Morocco, smoked cigars, saddled up camels and rode them into the Atlas mountains. I was very struck by her interesting life. There were many reporters who came to dinner at our villa and shared their stories. It really had a big influence.
Washington D.C. to Spokane
JO: So honors in history at Stanford, working in Washington DC, how did you end up in Spokane and how did you end up as a reporter in Spokane?
KDS: My first marriage really brought me to Spokane. That was in 1968, after college and graduate school. I graduated from Stanford in 1965. That’s when I worked in Congress for Democratic Rep. Edith Green of Portland. It was such a great time to be in Washington D.C.. The Civil Rights Act had just passed. The Great Society legislation was being worked. It was there also that I met Charlie Dorn who was in his second year at Harvard Law School. We got married six months later.
When I look back at that summer . . . I just saw the movie The Post about the Washington Post’s role in publishing the Pentagon Papers. That movie reminds me so much of Georgetown and that summer. We went to parties at Averell Harriman’s house. We swam in his pool with Art Buchwald. But in my work for Congresswoman Green, I saw the darker side of our society as I worked interviewing sharecroppers who, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act the year before, were still being terrorized for trying to vote. So it was a fascinating time.
I was in Boston for a year because Charlie was finishing up at Harvard Law. Then he got a clerkship with a Montana judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. So while he was clerking in San Francisco I got my masters in history at Berkeley. For a while I thought I would pursue a Ph.D. But I decided I really wanted to break into journalism. I couldn’t do that in the Bay Area right then. But I had a chance when we moved to Spokane in 1968.
The thing that brought us here was that Charlie had been offered a job at Gonzaga University as a law professor. During that first year in Spokane, The Spokesman-Review hired me due to my Congressional and cultural experiences to write editorials and also to write Spokane Symphony reviews. I found the newspaper ultra-conservative and parochial at that time. I only stayed there for one year. Then I went to public television where, after a couple of years, I became the television’s public affairs director. I had my own public affairs TV show called Spokane Weekly which was on the air from 1973 until 1982. So that got me into journalism: the move to Spokane.
“Beware: attack journalist”
JO: You eventually went back to the Spokesman.
KDS: I did. In 1982 Chuck Rehberg, who was the assistant editor of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, recruited me to be interviewed by the paper’s new top editor Curt Pierson who had come to town from the Bremerton Sun. I really liked Pierson. I admired him. He told me he wanted to change the Chronicle from a provincial afternoon daily to a regional force. He wanted to hire new, younger, skeptical, Watergate-era trained reporters to do things in a new way. Even though we were owned by the same publisher, we had lots of fun scooping the rival Spokesman-Review for nine months. After nine months the two newspapers were merged.
When I worked at the Chronicle I did a series of investigative and enterprise stories on Kaiser Aluminum’s political clout in the region and its influence on the Bonneville Power Administration to obtain favorable energy rates. I wrote about Washington Water Power, predecessor to Avista, and its efforts at that time to defund Spokane’s Legal Services Office which intervened in utility cutoff decisions on behalf of low-income people. I also wrote about also the utility’s bribery of state legislators that led to a high-profile Seattle trial and conviction of its chief lobbyist , Jeremiah Buckley.
Needless to say, Washington Water Power and Kaiser didn’t like our coverage and they complained that there was a new atmosphere of “attack journalism” in Spokane, lashing out at the new reporters who had come to work at the Chronicle. I still remember for my 40th birthday Curt Pierson printed me a T-shirt that read, “Beware: attack journalist.” I put it on in the newsroom that day and still have it.
JO: What beats did you cover?
KDS: My beats were political and environmental for the Chronicle. When they merged the papers I began to cover the environment which was a segue into my work on Hanford.
Women in Journalism
JO: We’ll talk about Hanford in a moment. But first, what was it like working as a woman in journalism during the 1960’s and ‘70s. In my family during the 1970s, our Mom became Idaho’s first nurse practitioner. This was a time of women blazing trails. I assume that you too were challenged as a woman in a profession that had been largely dominated by men.
KDS: When I was in San Francisco I had inquired about getting a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. In the 1960s and ‘70s it was very difficult for a woman to break into a newsroom, especially to cover any kind of major beat such as politics. Women were still shunted off to cover fashion and cooking. Many highly talented women like Ellen Goodman and Anna Quindlen back on the East Coast were trying to do the same thing that I was doing in Spokane. Women tried to break into news beats at the New York Times and Washington Post and they were largely unsuccessful.
Women were largely relegated to what were called research departments: they would research the issues, then hand their research over to the male reporters. The male reporters would get the byline.
In 1970 when I was starting my journalism career in Spokane, 46 female Newsweek staff members sued Newsweek — their own employer — for sex discrimination. And then they had to sue again two years later when very little changed. A book published in 2012 called The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich talks about that groundbreaking lawsuit and how women had to go to court to even get a chance under Federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination.
So compared with women in bigger cities, I was lucky to be in Spokane at that time. The Cowles newspaper hired me in 1968 as an editorial writer. Then they asked me to return after a career in public television. I was also fortunate to have bosses including Curt Pierson and later Chris Peck, a fellow Stanford graduate, who valued my reporting. My conflicts with editors were not about gender but were more about content, the struggle to do aggressive reporting after the two newspapers were merged.
My editor Curt Pierson was forced out in the merger and the surviving editor, Don Gormley, was more cautious and I thought far too willing to accommodate the influence of big business here in Spokane. The situation improved when Chris Peck became the top editor, but he also struggled with editorial independence while trying to cover the real estate interests of the Cowles family or dealing with Forest Service policy because of the Cowles family’s large timber holdings.
Chris hired a lot of really talented women starting in the late 1980s and ‘90s. By the mid ‘90s our newsroom was about half women, and we were ranked among the top 25 U.S. newspapers for our award-winning journalism. I was lucky not to go through a lot of sexism and problems with my gender in my journalism career.
Breaking the Hanford Story
JO: Let’s turn to Hanford. As a physician when I approach a complicated case, I do it in a very structured way that recognizes the correct diagnosis is the first step to treatment — and a careful history as the first step to diagnosis. You as an investigative journalist approached complicated, thorny issues such as Hanford or the pollution of the Columbia River by Teck Cominco. In your investigative reporting could you share your approach when starting on these complicated issues?
KDS: I do have a general approach, and that is informed by my history degrees from both Stanford and Berkeley. When I am approaching any new and complex subject I read about the history, create a timeline and cultivate sources in a series of getting-to-know you and getting-to-know-the-subject interviews. Then I looked for various studies, documents and people – from known experts to whistleblowers. Hanford, as we’ll talk about, was a different animal.
It was hard to get a handle on Hanford because it was so shrouded in secrecy with high-level security and classified information barriers. On that subject, Hanford officials have their own narrative which ultimately proved to be false as it pertained to public health. We knew the Hanford official story: it manufactured the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and was continuing to make more plutonium for the renewed nuclear arms race during the Reagan Administration. But what I learned over the course of my reporting was that there was a prevalent back story: the nuclear arms race claimed victims on American soil including eastern Washington and spread pollution far wider than we had previously known.
The other thing that really helped me in my journalism career: based on my Hanford reporting, I was awarded two fellowships. I spent a year at Stanford in 1986-87 as a Stanford Knight Fellow. They bring in 12 American journalists and 6 foreign journalists for a year, and I was able to study nuclear arms control policy. Based on my further nuclear reporting after my return to Spokane, I received a MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1990 to do research at the National Archives and travel to the Soviet Union to the site of its plutonium production facility in Siberia. Both of those experiences, which came out of my Hanford reporting, vastly expanded my knowledge of the subjects and provided many new sources. And I also had some really good help from my second husband Richard Steele because he’d been a physics major at Stanford. He helped me with the science and chemistry that I needed to know and he also speaks fluent Russian, so when we went to Siberia I interviewed Russian nuclear scientists and doctors and he was able to translate. So it was an interesting evolution of my expertise in that subject.
JO: So history really is important?
KDS: It certainly is. I could tell you more if you wanted to know about how the story opened up to me. It was quite an interesting story.
JO: Most people in the region who know of your work think of Hanford.
KDS: I got interested in Hanford in the early ‘80s just about the time the Spokane Chronicle disappeared and we all became Spokesman-Review reporters. It was the early years of the Reagan Administration and all the rhetoric of the “Evil Empire” and the Russian arms build-up. President Reagan and his administration had moved to restart two plants, the N-Reactor and PUREX (which is a very old plutonium processing plant) to build up America’s nuclear arsenal in response to the Soviets’ nuclear buildup. At the very same time the government was searching for a safe place to bury a large cache of highly radioactive fuel rods from America’s commercial nuclear plants.
Since I had the environmental and energy beat at the Spokesman-Review at the time, I wanted to evaluate whether the fuel rod burial program, called the Basalt Waste Isolation Project, would be safe. I had studied geology and knew about cracks in basalt, so I was really curious about that.
Hanford pollution records kept secret
I sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act on what had happened at Hanford in the past. Had there been accidents? I didn’t know. Had there been off-site releases? Had the Columbia River been impacted? The government’s response to my request was stunning. They told me that the recent environmental monitoring reports from the late ‘70s and ‘80s were publicly available. But most of the environmental monitoring reports from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were still classified. That raised huge questions. Without them, no one could really evaluate Hanford’s safety and whether people living nearby had been harmed in any way.
I had a lot of EPA sources and I knew that the EPA and the US Department of Energy were at loggerheads over Hanford. EPA wanted more disclosure of what had happened there to protect the Columbia River. But the Energy Department said it didn’t want to release the information because it was trying to protect its nuclear weapons program. In the past that program was shielded by the Atomic Energy Act during the Cold War which classified a significant amount of information about the weapons facility.
In order to get the documents that we needed to evaluate the safety of the Basalt Waste Isolation Project and Hanford’s past record of environmental contamination, we had to use the Freedom of Information Act and the federal courts. At that time, to its credit, the Spokesman-Review had lawyers who would go to court and fight for documents. They argued that the Freedom of Information Act (which was passed during the Nixon Administration after the Watergate abuses) should preempt the secrecy of the older Atomic Energy Act, at least when it came to environmental contamination.
Mummified lambs and cancer deaths
While this battle was playing out, I met a group of people who were instrumental in raising questions about Hanford’s contamination history. I met them through a Columbia Basin farmer named Tom Bailie who was pretty close to Rep. Tom Foley. There was a cocktail party for Tom Foley at the Patsy Clark mansion and Tom Bailie was there. We started talking about Hanford. Tom invited me to visit his community, the little towns of Mesa and Ringold, which are right across the Columbia River from Hanford.
When I got down there I learned that he and many of his neighbors had long suspected that there had been accidents and releases from their nuclear neighbor, but they couldn’t prove it. Bailey’s farm house was located in what local people called the “death mile.” Only one in 10 farms had escaped cancer. One of his neighbors, a man named Leon Andrewjeski, was actually keeping a death map to track the cancer deaths in the area which he showed to me.
Some of his friends came over. They started talking and they told me about incidents in the 60’s when men in government trucks from Hanford with Geiger counters came over, went through their fields, and collected soil. But they were never told what they were looking for.
Another neighbor who had actually worked at Hanford as a technician told me about a series of accidents that were never reported to the public.
Another old-timer recalled losing over 100 sheep in the winter of 1961. The lambs were born mummified. And their mothers, the ewes – their hair fell out in clumps and they died. The farmers counted over 100 deformed lambs. They didn’t know whether there was any connection to Hanford; they never reported the incident to Hanford officials or anybody else.
So this trip raised all kinds of questions. When I returned to Spokane, I started filing more document requests. I ultimately learned that the farmers had real reasons for concerns because the Atomic Energy Commission back in the 1960s was aware of the possible contamination of their farms. Their farms are named in the documents as possibly contaminated from radioactive elements that were in the Columbia River irrigation water and also from some airborne off-site releases.
Telling the Downwinders’ story, missing Plutonium
I put all of this together the best I could – it was a question mark story. In July of 1985 I wrote a front-page story in the Spokesman-Review, it was called “Downwinders: Living in Fear,” with a sidebar story that described the sheep deaths, titled “The Night The ‘Little Demons’ Were Born.”
Hanford officials at the time told me that studies had never been done on the farmers because, in the words of the Department of Energy, “We wouldn’t expect to see anything.” In other words, they didn’t look at what they didn’t want to see.
The downwinders’ story had quite an impact. It was the first story of off-site citizens who had opened up to talk about their concerns about the Hanford nuclear reservation. After the story came out, Hanford workers started contacting me. One source told me that the PUREX plutonium plant that had recently been restarted was unsafe and could cause a major accident.
I drove at night down to a motel in Pasco and met a Hanford worker there. The source had told me that the plant had lost some plutonium. Operators know when they start the chemical process how much “product” is supposed to come out the other end. The Hanford worker told me to look for a document called a MUF (Materials Unaccounted For) report. Which I obtained, and it corroborated what I ‘d been told.
But it also prompted a visit by an FBI agent to our newsroom who asked my editors why I was looking into missing plutonium. Getting into this stuff was revealing. It showed the power of the national security state, which I took as an attempt to impede my reporting, but we got the documents anyway.
A little bit after that William Buckley, a nationally-known conservative journalist who had a show on public television called Firing Line, contacted me. He brought his show to the Tri-Cities with an audience of about 300 people. Buckley invited me to be one of the guests. In the course of the debate over health effects from Hanford and whether people should be told about these health effects, he asked the audience for a show of hands on how many had suffered from thyroid disease. Lots of hands shot up. Buckley was astonished by how many people responded in that way.
There were many more stories, including additional ones in the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, about the safety of the Hanford plants. All of this put additional pressure on the government to release the historic Hanford documents.
Radioactive pollution from the Dalles to Spokane
In the fall of 1985, we filed a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act request for the entire history of the Cold War era at Hanford. Three groups filed: the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington D.C., the Hanford Education Action League of Spokane, and my separate request for the newspaper. Six months later, the Energy Department released the first 19,000 pages. Their site manager, Mike Lawrence, held a major press conference at Hanford to release the documents.
One document showed that short-cooled nuclear fuel was deliberately injected from the Hanford plant to track its deposition pattern in an effort to emulate what U.S. experts assumed the Soviet experts were doing in 1949 when the Russians were trying to catch up with America’s nuclear weapons program. I had the scoop on that story on March 6, 1986.
The information came from an environmental monitoring report published in 1950 that remained classified for 36 years. It showed that the radiation had spread 240 square miles from the Dalles to Spokane with no public health warning. We contrasted that with the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 with a much smaller release of radioactive iodine where people were evacuated and milk products were impounded to protect the public health.
The story that the Inland Northwest had served as a deliberate human experiment really, really shocked people and further pushed the Department of Energy to come clean on what had happened. It took another five years until the federal government admitted that it had put people’s health at risk.
Federal government acknowledges pollution, justice denied to thousands
Admiral James Watkins, who served as Energy Secretary, acknowledged that the health of people was at risk and that it would be necessary to conduct public health studies to determine any damage. That admission led to the first filing of toxic tort lawsuits in 1991 against government contractors that ran Hanford.
Those cases were consolidated in a major civil action called In Re Hanford. It wasn’t concluded until three years ago, in 2015. It was one of the longer running civil suits in the Federal District Court of Eastern Washington. Through those decades, I covered the litigation for the newspaper. The legal challenge came to an unsatisfactory end for most of the plaintiffs. A few people got substantial jury wards for thyroid cancers they developed after being exposed to the Hanford releases. But thousands of the plaintiffs were denied any funds at all or only received token amounts. That added to their bitterness about being lied to by their government for decades. The case ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
JO: Anything else you want people to know about opening up the Hanford story that was hugely important for this region?
KDS: It was a immensely important story. Future generations are going to have to pay attention. One of the most important elements of the Hanford story is never again to allow a government agency to operate without oversight. That kind of secrecy is corrosive. In the case of Hanford it put many lives at risk, it created a false picture of the nuclear arms race – an arms race the taxpayer paid for but was never informed about the public health consequences until really, really late.
When I first start covering Hanford, state officials couldn’t even go on the nuclear reservation without permission from the federal officials. There were efforts to muzzle what state officials knew about Hanford. Sometimes there was just, frankly, collusion. Academics who got grants from the Department of Energy didn’t necessarily pursue things that they should have pursued. Oversight and accountability are things that we really have to continue to stress. Certainly in today’s phase of the Hanford cleanup, that is important.
Hanford cleanup: River of Money
JO: Do you have any thoughts about the current cleanup effort at Hanford?
KDS: In 1994 my colleague Jim Lynch and I did a series entitled River of Money that was critical of the Hanford cleanup. We won the George Polk Award for that series. We documented huge cost overruns and bloated salaries for overseers of the contracts that were given out to private companies. We also described a litigation environment where lawyers basically had carte blanche to defend any contractor accused of either cost overruns or violations of the contract because the federal government had indemnified them.
I haven’t been reporting on the cleanup recently. I retired in 2009, and from what I’ve read since, I’m not convinced it has gotten a whole lot better. The vitrification plant for instance that was supposed to turn nuclear waste into glass logs and stabilize a lot of the Hanford waste is way behind schedule and far over budget. Several cleanup projects in the last 18 months or so have exposed workers to plutonium dust, which is obviously a very worrisome thing.
Progress in protecting the Columbia River – but now, Trump
There has been some progress. I went down with a group of environmental reporters in 2010 or so to look at the nuclear reservation and they showed us where they have stopped some of the leaks to the Columbia River. There were a series of chromium plumes that were going into the river. And they’ve moved some highly radioactive fuel rods away from the river. They have cleaned up some of the mixed radiation dumps on the reservation. That is better protection for the Columbia River.
However, the Trump Administration has announced it wants to cut the Hanford cleanup by $5 billion. We really need a new assessment from the State of Washington and a new crop of journalists to analyze whether this is advisable or not. Right now I don’t see a lot of regional attention to this issue. The congressman from Tri-Cities, Rep Dan Newhouse, is outraged by the proposed Trump budget cuts. But that’s the only reaction I’ve seen so far. We ought not to forget what’s going on down there. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, so this problem is going to be with us for a really long time.
JO: You mentioned this issue needs renewed attention from elected officials and journalists. Anything else that you would advise at this point given the risk and your knowledge?
KDS: The Trump Administration is working to hollow out the US Environmental Protection Agency and do away with oversight committees that are dedicated to scientific solutions. We as a society just can’t afford to have those things happen. We need to have good science to address long-term nuclear waste. And we need to have vigorous oversight. I’m alarmed by the administration’s efforts to hollow out and diminishing the federal government. And I’m not convinced of the strength of the oversight efforts.
Nuclear weapons buildup has consequences
JO: Our children and our children’s children will be living with this pollution legacy at the Hanford nuclear reservation. As you mentioned plutonium has a half-life of some 24,000 years. You in many ways opened up the Hanford story. What do you want your generations to know about your work on this issue, and what advice would you give them to better protect the Columbia River and the region?
KDS: Newer generations have to realize that nuclear weapons development has consequences. If we start back on the road to a renewed nuclear weapons buildup, then the same consequences are going to be there for another generation.
So we have two problems. We have the legacy problem of existing contamination throughout the country. It is stunning how many nuclear facilities there are, and how much pollution there is everywhere from Oak Ridge to Hanford to the Nevada Test Site. That’s a legacy problem.
But if we start into this again, there is no guarantee that we won’t have new problems arising. It’s a political issue: how much risk are we willing to take on to build more nuclear weapons that further destabilize the world? So that’s a big question.
The next question: how much will is there to actually clean up these sites in a way that will protect the Columbia River and will protect other rivers at other nuclear sites throughout the country? Will we just forget about them? Do we want to just seal them off as sarcophagi and quit monitoring them? I don’t think we can afford to do that. But as the federal budget shrinks and Congress gives huge tax breaks to billionaires and our national debt keeps rising, at some point we’re going have to ask ourselves some really tough questions – including what are we going to do about the pollution legacy of the nuclear arms race.
I don’t have a specific recommendation except to stay attuned to it and to recognize how serious it is and not compound the problem by re-engaging in a new nuclear arms buildup.
JO: The price of protection is constant vigilance.
Entire region: vulnerable to governmental, corporate exploitation
JO: And that includes journalism. Let’s now move upriver from the Hanford nuclear reservation near Tri-Cities to the smelter at Trail, British Columbia owned by Teck Cominco (now Teck Resources). You broke new ground in using the British Columbia version of FOIA, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, that involved getting the company agree to release some of its documents. From that flowed your reporting on British Columbia regulators looking the other way as Teck dumped massive amounts of pollutants in the Columbia River. Tell us how you got involved in this important story, and about your reporting on Teck polluting the Columbia River.
KDS: I had just done a big series on the expensive and politically contentious Superfund cleanup of mining pollution coming from the Silver Valley in Idaho. The more I got into these stories – first Hanford, then the Silver Valley, and then with an eye to Trail BC and the Teck Cominco smelter, I was struck by how our entire region is vulnerable because we are remote. That’s why the Manhattan Project chose Hanford. Our region is beautiful and rich with minerals – and exploited. Our region has been exploited by the government and exploited by corporations whether for weapons production or resource extraction. So these stories – these Superfund projects – are very interesting to me.
Teck Cominco, Columbia River pollution
The way I got into Teck Cominco was through the Columbia River Forum. I had noticed some small stories about Teck Cominco reaching out to rural county commissioners in Eastern Washington to have a “pact” on Columbia River issues. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but I was suspicious of it. I had seen this happen before with other big toxic waste projects. One in Eastern Washington involved a proposal by David Sabey of Seattle to put in a toxic waste incinerator at Lind, Washington. He got the rural County Commissioners very excited about jobs. However, the wheat farmers weren’t that excited about having a toxic waste incinerator in the middle of wheat country – and it never happened. You could call it a ploy, you could call it a strategy, that Teck Cominco was using, and it got my interest.
I went up to Northport, using the same procedures I always use for my projects: I read about the history, I cultivated sources, I visited the “black sand” beaches near Northport – 13 million tons of smelter slag from the Trail smelter with pollution accumulating there since 1896. We also took some of our own samples of slag and had them tested. They contained heavy metals including lead, arsenic, and mercury. Drawing on my Hanford experience, I knew I needed documents to get a better handle on the historic pollution. I made a request as you noted to the British Columbia government under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Teck Cominco is a Crown Corporation and their provincial law involves getting the permission of Teck Cominco to release documents on its own operations.
It took a long time to get the documents, but they were extremely interesting. They revealed for the first time (and had not been reported in the region) that the smelter had released tons of mercury over the decades, far more than the company had ever acknowledged. The mercury had traveled across the border into the United States and down into Lake Roosevelt.
I contacted Washington State officials at the Department of Ecology about the new numbers in these documents. They expressed surprise and said that Canadian officials had not been forthcoming about the mercury pollution at all.
The documents also revealed the game that went on between Canadian government regulators and the smelter. The documents reveal that the Canadian government knew that the smelter was causing problems but did nothing about it.
At the same time, leaders in the Colville Tribe were looking into the smelter pollution issue and were about to file a lawsuit. One of the environmental consultants for the Colvilles said that British Columbia’s lax standards and Teck Cominco’s pollution would have triggered a criminal environmental prosecution under U.S. Superfund law. This was a very experienced person who had worked at the Justice Department and also had a science background. I was quite struck by that: if this had happened across the border it would have resulted in an environmental criminal prosecution.
Teck employs public relations entities and has an office in Spokane. They didn’t like this reporting at all.
International pollution: U.S. polluters wade in, federal government retreats
As you know, there has been a maddeningly vacillating response on our side of the international border to force Teck Cominco to clean up its pollution. In 2003, the EPA issued a unilateral clean-up order to the company. The company responded that it was not subject to U.S. Superfund law. EPA failed to enforce its own order. Then the Colville tribal leaders sued in July 2004. After they sued, Washington State joined in the Colville lawsuit. At the same time, the Bush Administration was undermining a formal EPA pact by announcing a voluntary, $20 million clean-up study. And that still has left unanswered the question that I don’t think has been resolved to this day: who is going to pay for the actual cleanup of the upper Columbia River with costs estimated at over $1 billion? So far all we have is a $20 million study.
Like Hanford, the Teck Cominco story turned into a major environmental, public health, and diplomatic story. It was interesting to me that many U.S. companies (Edison Electric Institute and several other major lobbying firms for U.S. industries) sided with Teck Cominco because they pollute largely through the air into Canada. They feared that if Teck Cominco was stuck cleaning up its pollution in the United States, then they would be sued for polluting Canadian provinces in the future.
Meanwhile, there were also public health consequences for people in the Northport area. When I left the Spokesman-Review, I gave Becky Kramer my documents on chronic obstructive bowel problems in the Northport area. She wrote a very good story about residents who had their health endangered by Teck Cominco releases.
So again, it turned into a very interesting story that also had international and diplomatic implication.
JO: And still does.
KDS: And still does.
JO: That takes us to reporting in the face of adversity. We watch repeatedly as reporters find themselves covering a story, particularly environmental issues, and get crosswise with the powerful government or corporate interests. It’s not unusual for experienced environmental reporters to get moved to another beat. In some parts of the world, offending the powerful ends up getting reporters shot. Here in the U.S., reporters may just get moved. We as a society depend on ethical journalism. We now live in a time when the President of the United States has attacked journalists as public enemy number one – the very people we depend on. Having lived your life as a journalist, what advice would you give to young people who are considering a life in journalism?
Journalism: Truth, Accountability
KDS: I think about this quite a bit. I’ve been on the Ted Scripps Fellowship board at the University of Colorado, where we give fellowships to mid-career journalists to expand their expertise in environmental subjects. We are looking for young people who have exhibited courage and resiliency and have developed a thick skin in the faced of these attacks. I still feel that if you are young, if you have a passion for speaking the truth, and if you want to hold institutions accountable, then journalism is an honorable and highly worthwhile profession.
My career has taking me to villages in Siberia where peasants were exposed to Soviet weapons sites; taken me to secret nighttime meetings with Hanford workers; to the National Archives; and to the halls of Congress. Journalism can be very exciting and difficult work. It also will not make you rich in most cases.
You’ll also be subject to a lot of hardships, including personal attacks. When I was reporting on Hanford I was frequently attacked, accused of having a “hidden agenda” for wanting to disclose Hanford’s pollution history and ruin our nuclear weapons build-up. They try to use your own words against you in many cases. But you have to be courageous and not take it personally. You have to remind yourself that it’s not personal, it’s just a self-protective institutional response.
Certainly now in this new era of Trump with his accusations of “fake news,” journalism is facing an existential threat. But so far, I’m really proud of journalists, especially those working for the major national papers, who are trying to protect the First Amendment, fight for good science, work for transparency, combat disinformation and dispute outright lies.
This is tough work. But if young people want to have a really meaningful career that upholds the values of our country and defends the First Amendment, then journalism is still an option.
When you heard, felt the building shake
JO: You started your reporting using pen, paper, and a typewriter. You finished your reporting career with your fingers tapping on a keyboard in front of a computer screen. There will be a lot of younger journalists who will never have gone through that transition. But you did. Do you have any reflections on that transition?
KDS: That’s an interesting question. So much technology has changed during the course of my career. I recall when I first went to the Chronicle, we used typewriters. Our stories were edited by hand and then they were rolled up and stuffed into vacuum tubes. The tubes were whisked up to a huge room where the pressmen (and they were all men at that time) would do their hot lead typesetting in order to print the story.
There is a visual reminder of this in the new movie “The Post” with the Pentagon papers as the issue. The film shows the vacuum tubes. It was very meaningful to me to see that movie and be reminded of that era in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. When the pressmen would have the next day’s paper all laid out in hot lead, they pushed a button and the whole building would rumble. We knew the afternoon Chronicle was on its way to readers when you heard and felt the building shake.
The computer era was obviously a huge change. I think I got my first computer in 1985 or ‘86. Computers have certainly brought efficiency. But they’ve also created problems as well. The Internet has made it far easier to search for lots of information. There are so many documents that are posted online and it is much, much faster to get them. But a lot of the information on the Internet can be suspect too, so it has to be vetted carefully – as we saw with the recent presidential election and all the false information out there. So you still have to be careful even though there’s a lot at your fingertips.
No place to hide, no time to write
I think often of problems with cell phones because they’re powerful mobile computers. They are useful but you also can be hacked, tracked and monitored while conducting sensitive investigation. When I was cultivating those Hanford workers in the 1980s who had contacted me about problems with PUREX and other sites, I used the mail and the landline to make arrangements to interview them. Even if a cell phone had been available I couldn’t have brought it along because it would have been tracked, recorded, and monitored by security forces.
One of the best accounts of this problem in modern day reporting is by reporter Glenn Greenwald who describes it in his book “No place to hide” which was written in 2013. Greenwald described how he met and interviewed Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. His initial contacts had to be encrypted, and he had to put his cell phone in the freezer while they were in Snowden’s hotel room so that no one could listen in.
The other thing that technology has done, including the presidential use of Twitter, is to speed up the news cycle to 24/7 intensity which didn’t really exist when I was reporting, at least in the early days. The value of time is what my editors gave me. Sometimes I had weeks or months to do investigative reporting. Few reporters have that luxury anymore. It’s one of the reasons why investigations are disappearing from at least regional newspapers. They don’t have the staff, they don’t have the time. People are covering too many subjects, and there are too many pressures to really do that kind of thoughtful work. I worry about that. I don’t worry about the Washington Post or the New York Times, but I worry about the regional papers and whether they can continue to be able to do distinguished work that requires time.
Community activism t0 advance the Common Good
JO: Well . . . time. And time marches on. One day came and you closed your computer at the newspaper for the last time and walked out the door. What’s it been like to be retired from journalism and do you have any plans to do more writing?
KDS: Since retiring in 2009 I have been venturing into community activism, which of course I couldn’t do when I was journalist. I am now the co-chair of the Spokane Alliance which has 20,000 members through churches, unions, and nonprofits. We’ve been organizing for the Common Good. We’ve had successful campaigns before our City Council to establish apprenticeships by using 15 percent of all public works dollars so that young people can learn a trade and stay in Spokane instead of moving somewhere else. We also organized the community over the last 3 years in a successful campaign to provide paid sick and safe leave for 40,000 low-income Spokane residents. That effort was approved by Spokane City Council in 2016.
What motivated me to do these things is that as a reporter in Spokane and covering eastern Washington, even though I wasn’t covering social services, I was struck by how many people here are really struggling, who are falling out of the middle class. So I decided to spend some time on those efforts.
I also work with Spokane Preservation Advocates on efforts to preserve historic houses and commercial buildings. We just succeeded this week in getting a stronger demolition ordinance to make it easier for neighborhoods like Browne’s Addition to form historic districts to protect their historic character.
I do have an unfinished journalism project. I have been writing some shorter things in my retirement. I’ve recently written a book introduction for an oral history of Hanford downwinders and I am now reviewing documents from the long Hanford downwinders trial that settled in 2015 for a possible book.
JO: We’ll look forward to that book being published. Anything else that you would like to share? Any closing thoughts? You really have a lived an amazing life with still more to come. You’ve also covered some extraordinarily important issues and contributed hugely to the Common Good of the region. Anything else?
KDS: Lots of reporters start at small papers and they work their way up, eventually finding themselves in New York City or Washington DC. I’m somewhat unusual to have spent most of my career in journalism in one city. Maybe it was just the luck of what was all around me: Hanford, all these Superfund sites, all these huge issues about protecting our natural resources. But I never felt that need to move onto a bigger pond because there was so much right here. My advice to young people before they get too excited about making their next career move is to look at what is right in front of their nose and see what kind of contribution they can make.
Tribes as sovereigns demand cleanup of massive pollution
JO: Before we close, I have one final question. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Yakama Nation among others have taken a leadership role in stepping forward to address major pollution and natural resources issues in our region. They have stepped forward, often in the face of incredible adversity, as advocates not only for tribal people but also the common good of the region. Given your years of reporting on Hanford and these Superfund mega-sites from mining and smelting pollution, what reflections do you have on the emerging importance and leadership of the region’s tribes?
KDS: I think tribes have been incredibly important to these efforts. I referred to the county commissioners that Teck Cominco was trying to set up, which completely bypassed the Tribes. When the Colvilles sued to force the cleanup of the Columbia River, I got some real backlash from conservative people in eastern Washington who said that the tribes should butt out, it’s not their fight, plus some racist comments. I am struck by that because the tribes in most cases have really tried to do the right thing for natural resource issues. The Colvilles were very courageous in taking a leadership role on the Teck Cominco issue. I don’t think a lot of people really understand that tribes are sovereigns equal to states and have standing in these Superfund cleanups. The tribes have had a profound influence on these processes that involve cleaning up massive mining and smelting waste.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe stood up for the Superfund cleanup of the Coeur d’Alene Basin when the cleanup was being attacked by the conservative Idaho congressional delegation and the Bush Administration. The tribes have largely been a force for good in the effort to counter the effects of the regional pollution that has been here for a hundred years.