Finding Necessary Evidence to Back Up a Tip: A 17-Month Investigation about Drinking Water Pollution Prompts Action
Streater, Scott, Nieman Reports
It was a sensational tip. The public utility responsible for ensuring safe drinking water in Pensacola, Florida knew for years that radioactive waste had polluted several wells and that thousands of people had been drinking this contaminated water. And the utility's leaders conspired to misinform the public and thwart efforts by state environmental regulators to force the utility to rid the water of this pollutant. As a result, high levels of radium 226/228 from a massive underground plume of toxic chemicals from a nearby Superfund hazardous-waste site were continuing to contaminate the water and exposing residents to high levels of radium--a known human carcinogen linked to bone and nasal cancer.
That's the story Mike Papantonio, a high-profile lawyer at one of Florida's biggest law firms, pitched to me in February 2002. I shuddered at the possibility. Already I'd written extensively about the massive underground plume coming from the Agrico Chemical Company fertilizer plant (the Superfund site) and its very real threat to drinking water supplies. But if his tip about the utility's longtime knowledge and cover-up was true, it would be a huge and important story, perhaps one of the most important the Pensacola News Journal had ever published. My heart raced at hearing this tip, but my mind harkened back to the sage advice of one of my college journalism professors, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."
Reporting on the Tip
I set out to "check it out" because on its surface Papantonio's story simply didn't jibe with the available facts. It would take nearly a year and a half of sometimes-intense research to determine that these accusations were not only true, but that the entire story was much, much bigger than anyone understood.
I knew that Papantonio had his own reason to circulate this kind of information, a motive that did not involve serving the public good. He was embroiled in a high profile, class-action lawsuit against Conoco Inc. (now ConocoPhillips), which owns the Superfund site. Papantonio's partners on the lawsuit included Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his Riverkeeper Inc. group, as well as Jan Schlichtmann, the Boston lawyer made famous in "A Civil Action," a book and movie about a water pollution case in Woburn, Massachusetts. The lawsuit centered on the Agrico underground plume, alleging that the spreading toxic plume damaged property values and endangered the health of thousands of people by contaminating private irrigation wells used to water lawns and fill swimming pools.
Papantonio provided me with about 15 pages of internal memorandums, emails and other documents that he and his team of lawyers obtained during the discovery phase of the pretrial process. I reviewed these records, which appeared to qualify as the basis for a solid story. But I also pursued my own research by going to the county courthouse and poring over hundreds of pages of court filings, documents and depositions in the public record. I was glad I did, because my search made clear that individual pages or portions of memos and e-mails had been carefully picked from the public record, and in some cases this meant that information was taken out of context.
For example, one of the documents Papantonio provided me with was a letter from a Florida Department of Environmental Protection official stating that radium in Pensacola's public water supply was a health threat. But my independent review of records obtained by Papantonio that were on file at the courthouse included a follow-up memo in which the same state regulator reversed himself. (I would eventually discover there were political reasons for these differing positions that had nothing to do with science. But the omission of this memo concerned me.) Other records Papantonio provided were extremely vague, with no hard data.
Searching for Evidence
I needed well-documented evidence for us to be able to publish this story. …