State delayed years on toxic fish; Inslee to outline his plan today

A 'Healthy Choice' program brochure advising consumers about safe fish consumption.
Credit: Washington Department of Health

Ten minutes and four slides. That’s what a Washington Department of Health staffer responsible for warning the public about contaminants in fish was allotted to impress then-Health Secretary Mary Selecky about the importance of the issue.

Lots of luck, warned former Department of Health toxicology chief Rob Duff — Selecky and her crew are “skeptics” who “are not very interested” in environmental health.

And yet, wrote Duff: “If not DOH, who?”

That was early 2008. In the months that followed, Health Department staffers would continue to raise contaminated fish as a public health issue, records and interviews show.  Among their concerns: a long-known error in the state formula that controls how much toxic pollution can be dumped into waterways by factories, sewage-treatment plants and other polluters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since repeatedly warned the state to fix the error.

Now, a year and a half into the Inslee administration, the governor is scheduled to announce his plan today in Olympia.

As More Imported Foods Reach the Dinner Table, Holes Remain in FDA Safety Net

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In April 2012, a team of inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated a seafood company in southern India that had been exporting tons of frozen yellowfin tuna to the United States. What they found was not appetizing: water tanks rife with microbiological contamination, rusty carving knives, peeling paint above the work area, unsanitary bathrooms and an outdoor ice machine covered with insects and “apparent bird feces,” according to the report.

The FDA issued an “import alert” that barred Moon Fishery India Pvt. Ltd. from shipping fish to the United States. But the damage to public health had been done. By the time the FDA got around to inspecting the plant, a salmonella outbreak was erupting around the country. Ultimately, 425 people in 28 states and the District of Columbia were sickened, with victims ranging from babies to octogenarians. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55 people were hospitalized.

The fact that tons of bad fish had sailed into this country was not a surprise. The FDA has been outgunned and overmatched for years as a rising tide of imported food has found a place at the U.S. dinner table. Because of budget constraints, ordinarily only 1 percent to 2 percent of food imports are physically inspected by the agency at the border each year. Typically, operations such as the one in India that supply foods for the U.S. market are inspected only if something goes terribly wrong.

And the threat of illness from imports may be growing. According to an analysis of FDA data by FairWarning and the Investigative News Network, the FDA today rejects about the same number of shipments of foreign food as it did a decade ago – when imports were less than half the current level.

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Meet a journalist: Allegra Abramo

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This summer, Allegra Abramo joins InvestigateWest from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where she is studying for a Master's degree in journalism with a focus on health and science. She's the kind of journalist we love — skeptical and interesting, with a fondness for data and people alike. Here are a few questions we asked so we could introduce her to you.

What made you want to be a journalist?

When I took a mid-career pause to assess how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life, I realized research and writing are the tasks I enjoy the most. I’m happiest when I’m learning something new every day, and I have the annoying habit of asking “why?” a lot. Journalism seemed like the perfect fit. It gives me an excuse to interview a scientist one day and a community leader the next, to grapple with the nitty-gritty of how research was done and its limitations, and how policies and programs are affecting people on the ground. Then I get to delve into reports and scrutinize data, and finally weave what I learn into a story that helps people understand the world.

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Happy Birthday, InvestigateWest!

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Associate Director Jason Alcorn. Photo: Sarah Stuteville.

For InvestigateWest's five-year anniversary party on June 19, we invited Peggy Watt to say a few words about InvestigateWest from her vantage point training young journalists, including several former IW interns. Watt chairs the journalism department at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Here are her prepared remarks.

So you are five years old. I have been thinking a bit about 5-year-olds lately, because my grandson Spencer Glenn will be five on his next birthday. Here are the things I have been noticing about 5-year-olds....

They are inquisitive.

And InvestigateWest is certainly that, by keeping investigative reporting alive and well in the Pacific Northwest. I have enjoyed your work in environmental, health and political issues, and will be watching to see what you explore next.

Five-year-olds are energetic.

I’ve covered Silicon Valley startups, and I see the same vibe at InvestigateWest. Robert came to Western as a visiting professional in the company’s first year. We work our Visiting Pros pretty hard, scheduling them to speak to as many classes as possible during the day and partying with the faculty at night, but he kept up – and without caffeine. One of his stories to the students was how he moved to Seattle and gave up coffee. You’ll have to ask him about that one.

Five-year-olds are creative.

And InvestigateWest has been creative in presenting its journalism, using online presentations, galleries, solid long-form journalism, a range of reporting methods and presentation methods.

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Join Us on June 19 to Celebrate Five Years

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Every summer we invite friends and supporters to join us in celebrating the anniversary of InvestigateWest's founding in 2009. It's a wonderful opportunity to connect with old friends, meet new friends, and thank everyone who makes it possible for us to do what we do here.

This year's event is happening on June 19 at 5 p.m. at the South Lake Union Discovery Center.

Come enjoy drinks and light refreshments between work and dinner. We'll have a short program around 6 to thank some important people and give you a taste of the exciting things to come for InvestigateWest. There will also be a silent auction with items generously donated by the community.

Please RSVP at EventBrite so we know how many people to plan for.

We can't wait to see everyone on June 19!

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One Year After Skagit Bridge Collapse, Little Done To Improve Bridges

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Two vehicles retrieved from the Skagit River on May 27, 2013, with the collapsed Interstate 5 Bridge in the background. Photo: Flickr/WSDOT

On the day that Jan Auman, a coffee shop owner in Skagit County, had planned to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her new business, the nearby I-5 bridge collapsed.

A flatbed truck carrying an oversize load had collided with the span’s overhead frame, “sway braces” that kept the bridge steady. The bridge collapsed and several cars fell into the water. No one was killed, but the event cast the spotlight on the state’s roster of sagging bridges.

Within weeks, federal safety investigators issued a preliminary report and construction of a temporary bridge was underway. The trucking company, the required escort car that guided the truck across the bridge, and Washington state officials all started to point fingers, and traffic snarled in front of Auman’s North Cove Coffee Shop. Customers wouldn’t leave their spot in the line of traffic to come in.

“It really rattled us,” Auman said. “It was like, we won’t make it.”

Traffic has since eased, but political gridlock persists. Friday marks a year since the collapse of the Skagit River bridge, and on the surface, little has changed. Party politics have thwarted bridge safety improvements, and an investigation drags on to decide how the trucking company, its escort car and the state may share blame. Yet a new mapping tool for truckers may offer hope.

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NPR's Here and Now Airs Reporting on Portable Classrooms

This month marks another milestone for InvestigateWest: national radio airplay for one of our projects. Our series on portable classrooms called Inside the Box and produced in partnership with EarthFix was featured on Here and Now, a national program from NPR and WBUR Boston that reaches 3.1 million listeners each week.

Take a listen below to Ashley Ahearn's reporting as she first tells about the problems associated with aging portables and then how some schools in the Pacific Northwest are turning to new and better models.

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School Districts Explore Solutions For Excessive Portable Classroom Use

Third-grade teacher Nancy Avery helps her class during reading time. Avery taught in a portable classroom for 27 years. This is her first year inside a brick-and-mortar building at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane, Washington. Photo: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

SPOKANE, Wash. — Teachers at Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary don’t have to look far to know what they left behind.

The school’s old portable classrooms sit just a block away from their brand new building. It was in those portables where for nearly 30 years, Nancy Avery made the choice between fresh air and listening to her students, when she’d routinely switch off the noisy ventilation system that drowned out their voices.

It was in the school’s 14 portables where students and teachers were sick far too often, she said. Several teachers contracted skin reactions, she said, that have dissipated since the move to the new building.

No longer does Avery worry about water leaks and ceiling stains. No more will the hot, stuffy box lull her students during standardized testing.

But most of all, there’s no more smell. That’s what she and the others notice most.

“Those portable classrooms don’t have a masonry foundation at all, so you just have dirt underneath — so it smells a lot better in this new building,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Mary-Dean Wooley said. “That moldy, earthy smell is absent completely.”

In September, Jefferson Elementary’s new $25-million campus eliminated the need for portables. Built with enough space to accommodate future enrollment growth, Wooley said the school shouldn’t need them any time soon.