Oklahoma park bought and paid for

A birds-eye view of the campgrounds at Lake Texoma State Park in July 2009
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

KINGSTON, Okla. – For decades, Lake Texoma State Park was one of Oklahoma’s most popular and profitable state parks. It was a place of simple pleasures, with a lodge, cabins and campsites priced modestly enough that almost anyone could afford to relax for a few days beside a cool lake along the border of two of America’s hottest states.

But facing mounting maintenance costs for the neglected park, the state government authorized its sale in 2005 and, after an appeal to Congress, closed a $14.6 million deal with a private development firm in 2008. The transfer was legal as long as Oklahoma agreed to create a new public park of equal value in return. Lake Texoma, which has received $1.6 million in federal grants, is one of thousands of public parks across the country improved with money from the federal Land and Water Conversation Fund. Parks that receive such funding by law must be open to the public in perpetuity unless replaced with land of equal fair market value and “reasonably equivalent” recreational use.

For the developer, Pointe Vista Development, L.L.C, it was a rich score. The company plans to build a $500-million-plus gated retreat of condos, hotels, fancy homes and golf courses. Restaurants, swimming pools, a gym and a spa are going in. The developers are getting tax incentives to do it, too.

Four years later the replacement park is still not built, even as the last state park cabins are slated for demolition.

The Lake Texoma case illustrates how states can disregard their legal obligations to federally protected parkland. As InvestigateWest has reported, the National Park Service, which is responsible for overseeing the conversion program, does not have adequate controls in place to ensure that parks that receive federal grants comply with the law.

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Kids wait six years for ballfields taken over by Yankee Stadium

Macombs Dam Park under construction in December 2007
during the building of the new Yankee Stadium.
Flickr/Benjamin Kabak

In the poorest Congressional district in the country, the nation’s wealthiest baseball franchise took away kids’ baseball fields.

For six years.

With National Park Service approval.

And it was all legal.

Those South Bronx baseball fields sat in Macombs Dam Park, across the street from the old Yankee Stadium. For years, they hosted home games of nearby high schools as well as neighborhood pickup baseball. Kids too poor to attend a New York Yankees game at least could try to pitch a no-hitter in the shadow of the Bronx Bombers’ aging palace.

Like more than three million acres of public parkland added or improved across the country since 1965, Macombs Dam Park and its baseball fields are entitled to special protection because they received federal grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1979, money from the fund helped to pay for the fields, a running track, walkways and new park lighting. By law, parks that receive this funding are supposed to remain open to the public forever or be replaced by land of comparable use and value.

But there’s a catch. The law and the rules that flow from it have no limits on how long it can take to replace a destroyed park once the new acreage is purchased. There’s no hard deadline. And so the kids of the South Bronx waited six years.

During that time, construction crews also obliterated nearly 400  trees that helped clean the air  in a neighborhood where hospitalization rates for asthma are five times what they are nationally. The new parking lots, including the one that went on top of the old ballfields, made it much easier to bring more than 3,300 extra cars into the neighborhood dozens of times each year when the Yankees play.

“It’s absolutely shameful,” said Geoffrey Croft, executive director of the non-profit NYC Parks Advocates and the most outspoken critic of the transaction.

The National Park Service official who oversaw the deal, Jack Howard, acknowledged that the baseball fields were way overdue when they finally opened in April of this year – three years after the new stadium’s hoopla-filled opening day in April 2009.

“Sometimes things take a little more time than you’d hope,” Howard said. “We were hopeful things would be done in a timely manner but sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.”

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Is the Clean Water Act really keeping Northwest waterways clean? We’d like to hear from you.

It’s remarkable to go back and take a look at what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act, the subject of the just-launched collaboration between InvestigateWest, EarthFix and Ecotrope on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the bedrock environmental statute. We’ll just quote:

“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985…

“It is the national goal that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited…

“It is the national policy that programs for the control of non-point sources of pollution be developed and implemented in an expeditious manner..."

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it turns out, lawmakers really wanted to end water pollution over the course of the next 13 years. It sounds particularly ambitious from the perspective of 40 years later, given that we know that what really got set up was a system to permit pollution. How could that happen? Well, theoretically all polluters would be issued permits – a set of rules under which to operate – that would progressively reduce the amount of gunk going into the waterways they dumped waste into. 

It didn’t always work out that way, though. But there’s no arguing that the Clean Water Act in some ways did a great job of reducing water pollution. Nationally, the classic before-and-after story is Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which had so many flammable wastes in it in the late 1960s that it famously caught on fire (more than once, actually. And it was far from the only industrial river to do so.) Today it’s a prized urban amenity, with restaurants along its banks and kayakers breezing along on their way to Lake Erie.

Similar comeback stories can be told in our region about Oregon’s Willamette, Idaho’s Boise and the Spokane and Duwamish rivers of Washington, among others. Once they were essentially open-air industrial sewers. For example, a tributary of the Boise where a meat-packing plant was located once ran red with bloody wastes and “health regulators also noted a great deal of rat activity along the banks,” as Aaron Kunz reported last year for EarthFix, based on a government report from the time.

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Carol Smith's picture

Interview: Dr. Michael Copass

Dr. Michael Copass, medical director of Medic One
(InvestigateWest/Medic One Foundation)

Dr. Michael Copass, whose famously crusty persona and exacting standards in the emergency room inspired equal parts dread and admiration among generations of medical students, residents, nurses and paramedics-in-training, sat down with InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith to talk about Medic One – the emergency response system he helped pioneer, and how it is responding to the epidemic of overdose deaths in King County.  Over the nearly four decades he was director of Emergency Services for Harborview Medical Center, the region’s Level 1 trauma service, Copass acquired a legendary status for his fierce devotion to patients and his high bar for those under his command. Paul Ramsey, dean of the University of Washington School of Medicine, once referred to him as a “cross between General Patton and Albert Schweitzer.” The Medic One model of emergency response, which began in the late 1960s, is now emulated around the world. Copass, who retired from Harborview in 2008, remains medical director of Medic One.

Smith: I think the lay public confuses Medic One vehicles with ambulances, and we use the terms interchangeably. What kind of equipment is different on a Medic One versus a private ambulance?

Copass: Private ambulances carry comfort equipment – oxygen, suction gear. A Medic One unit basically is an under-stocked ER. (It has) two defibrillators -- one on active duty, one on reserve.  It has individuals trained at the 2,800-hour level of education versus individuals who are trained at 120 hours.

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Carol Smith's picture

Riding with the Opiate Epidemic's First Responders

I’ve been in the back of ambulances before, but never for work. So my recent ride-along in the front seat of one of Medic One’s fleet of response vehicles was a first for me. It was an unusual opportunity. Medics are understandably hesitant to import bystanders to a scene. The last time they did it, I was told, was when CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer reported on Medic One in 1974, noting for posterity that Seattle was the “best place in the country if you’re having a heart attack.”

So I was grateful that the Seattle Fire Department granted my request to accompany their medics into the field to see the opioid drug epidemic from their perspective. I’d asked after learning, during the course of reporting about Washington’s prescription epidemic, that medics respond to up to 50 overdose calls a month in King County and about half of those calls involve prescription painkillers.

My ride-along took months to arrange. The result is this piece for KUOW, about efforts underway to supply more bystanders with Narcan – an antidote that can wake someone up from an overdose and save his life. Medics carry Narcan, and citizens, by law, are allowed to. But the drug is not widely available. If more people did carry it, public health experts say there would likely be fewer calls to Medic One about overdoses.

Lt. Craig Aman, a 22-year-veteran paramedic, met me at the Battalion 3 headquarters, a warren of small offices across the street from Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room. 

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U.S. Senate to Investigate Financial Ties of Pain Experts

The Senate Finance Committee has launched an inquiry into financial ties between producers of prescription painkillers and the doctors and patient advocacy groups that help to set guidelines for drug use, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

The manufacturers of OxyContin, Percocet, and Duragesic are among the targets of the inquiry, which is led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). The Pain and Policy Studies Group at the University of Wisconsin and the American Pain Foundation, which closed last week, according to its website, also received letters asking for information about ties to drug makers.

The investigation comes amidst the increasing number of prescription drug overdoses that InvestigateWest reported on in January.

ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, which makes information about drug company payments to doctors publicly accessible, has led to a flurry of stories in the media, and the Seattle Times recently won a Pulitzer for its investigation into methadone and pain control.

More coverage of the Senate inquiry: Reuters, Pharmalot, ProPublica.

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Investigators to take new look at health effects of Duwamish cleanup

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submits its proposed cleanup plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site later this year, community health researchers are conducting a “health impact assessment” to figure out ways the cleanup could affect surrounding communities.

During the upcoming spring and summer months, researchers from University of Washington, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action will determine how people along the river are likely to be most affected by EPA’s cleanup. An environmental cleanup of the magnitude to be conducted on the Duwamish will undoubtedly make the river cleaner and healthier for humans and wildlife, but researchers want to learn more about the potential impact on communities, both positive and negative.

“We want to minimize the adverse effects and optimize the benefits for these communities,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager of the Cleanup Coalition.

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Emmy Nomination for Katie Campbell, "Where there's smoke"

Congratulations to KCTS 9's Katie Campbell, who on Friday got an Emmy nomination in the video journalist category from the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Science.

Katie was nominated for her work on "Where There's Smoke," a seven-minute Earthfix documentary produced in partnership with InvestigateWest on the health risks associated with wood-burning stoves. In Tacoma and many towns across the Northwest in the winter, wood smoke leads to sooty, toxic air pollution that leaves some residents – particularly asthmatics, kids and the elderly – gasping for breath.

Along with fireplaces and other wood-burning heaters, old wood stoves produce about half the microscopic particles of soot that typically hang in the air in the Tacoma area when winter air stagnates. By comparison, industry, already heavily regulated, emits just one-tenth of the Tacoma-area soot pollution.

In Washington, the state Ecology Department estimates that sooty pollution from all sources contributes to 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health costs annually.

Watch Katie's video after the jump.

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