November 18, 2013


Our 2012 collaboration with EarthFix and Oregon Public Broadcasting, "Clean Water: The Next Act" earned a special recognition citation from the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism committee. The top prize went to the Sacramento Bee for its outstanding reporting on the killing of millions of predators and other animals by a little-known agency inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From the Knight-Risser website:

The Knight-Risser prize places a premium on stories that expose undiscovered or covered-up problems, explain complex solutions in ways that can be put to use, and help readers understand the broader significance of the issues, beyond the immediate details of the stories at hand.

In announcing the prize, the Knight-Risser judges commended "Clean Water: The Next Act" for its "innovative uses of text, video and audio to give people wide access to information about the state of U.S. rivers, lakes, and bays since passage of the federal Clean Water Act 40 years ago."


November 12, 2012

After a summer working on Clean Water: The Next Act -- and the better part of a career reporting on water issues -- our executive director Robert McClure went down to the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Lubbock, Tex., to talk to other reporters about how to find stories in their own communities. Robert serves on the SEJ board of directors.

He put together this tip sheet as a handout (PDF), and we want to publish it here, too. Without further ado...

The Clean Water Act: How to cover it back home

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, a bedrock environmental statute that resulted in dramatic increases in the health of America’s waterways. But the law has not accomplished its goals of making America’s waterways uniformly fishable and swimmable.

Some ways you can cover this story in your community or state:

  • A great way to get your...
October 18, 2012

Grants helped pay for this rain garden to be built in West Seattle. Property owners
who choose to build rain gardens see it as a way to beautify their property, increase property values
and reduce pollution through stormwater runoff.
Katie Campbell/EarthFix

The most pervasive water pollution source in American cities and suburbs is the contaminant-laced rainwater that sloughs off hard surfaces like streets and parking lots after a heavy rain, carrying with it the toxic debris of modern life.

Clean Water: The Next Act

This little-noticed form of pollution kills fish and other aquatic creatures, pollutes drinking-water supplies and scours away streambeds that fish such as salmon need to lay eggs. At least since the 1970s, scientists and engineers have been devising methods to intercept –- or better yet, never generate –- this so-called stormwater.

Yet these methods still are not widely mandated, making stormwater one of the...

October 18, 2012

Stormwater runoff carries an assortment of litter and unseen pollutants into
rivers, lakes, and marine waters, including Puget Sound.
Credit: Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Work to develop solutions to the stormwater problem dates at least to the 1970s. Scientists, government officials and others woke up to the problem in a big way in the 1980s.

Clean Water: The Next Act

Fifteen years after adopting the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress in 1987 amended the statute with directions for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to go after stormwater. But changing the law didn’t fix the problem.

Congress’ action prompted the EPA and its proxies at the state level to begin requiring cities to obtain government permits to operate the systems of gutters, pipes and so forth that dump the polluted stormwater into streams, rivers, lakes and bays. The local governments were required to:

  • Educate the public about the problem and involve the public;
  • Set up a program to catch people dumping contaminants down the stormwater system, such as people who route their sewage pipes into...
October 17, 2012

Laura James swims inside a stormwater outfall in Puget Sound that she has come
to call "The Monster" because of how much runoff billows from it when it rains.
Michael Bendixen/OPB

SEATTLE — Gliding through the clear, emerald water of Puget Sound, Diver Laura James stopped when something shiny on the bottom caught her eye. She reached down and picked up a tire-flattened beer can.

And then she noticed more garbage — stir straws, bubble gum wrappers, coffee lids, a plastic packet of ketchup — littered across the sound’s sandy floor.

Clean Water: The Next Act

“I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first,” James says. “We’d swim along and we’d see this decaying swath – black with dead leaves and garbage. And then it would go back to normal.”

James, who has been diving in Puget Sound for more than 20 years, recalls the day she discovered the source. The giant submerged column she saw from a distance was in reality a dark plume of runoff flowing out of a pipe....

October 3, 2012

West Point in Seattle is Washington's largest treatment plant. Although it is in compliance with state limits on pollutants in the wastewater it dumps into Puget Sound, other shortcomings have kept it from winning a state award for perfect performance.
Ned Ahrens/King County

SALT LAKE CITY – Sitting by a table in his basement office, a silver-shocked Peter Maier pulls out four colors of Legos to illustrate how all life is built mostly of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon – and how one, nitrogen, can be a big pollution problem when not properly handled at sewage-treatment plants.

Clean Water: The Next Act

He rattles through a brief history of modern sewage treatment, including how what he learned in his native Holland gave him great pause when he moved to America in 1978 and saw...

October 3, 2012

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer, has crusaded for three decades to improve testing of sewage, which he says would show the need for additional pollution cleanup to protect U.S. waterways under the Clean Water Act.

SALT LAKE CITY – If Peter Maier is right, sewage treatment plants across the country are performing a crucial scientific test incorrectly, resulting in widespread pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. And they’re doing it with the express approval of the federal government.

Clean Water: The Next Act

At the heart of the engineer’s contention: Our sewage-treatment plants fail to clean up urine.

For three decades Maier has aggressively, even abrasively, pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require different testing of sewage dumped by wastewater treatment plants. Maier says the tests must take better account of how much oxygen the pollution takes out of the waterways where it is dumped, and how much it will encourage the growth of algae that can lead to fish kills.

At stake...

October 3, 2012
Paul Gilliland is the mayor of the Eastern Washington town of Harrington. He's pictured collecting a sample of water that will flow into a lagoon. The mayor is getting certified to operator Harrington's wastewater plant.
Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

HARRINGTON, Wash. — When a fire breaks out, Fire Chief Scott McGowan is on the call. He’s on the spot when a sewer line breaks and somebody has to fix it. He is in charge of the drinking water plant that serves the 420 people in the small Eastern Washington town.

Clean Water: The Next Act

And he doubles as the wastewater treatment operator, not as glamorous as being fire chief, but it’s part of his job description.

McGowan’s backup at the wastewater plant? Until the city can hire another worker, that would be Mayor Paul Gilliland. He already handles most of the wastewater plant’s paperwork and is studying to earn an operator certification so he can be a full-service mayor.

Harrington is just one of many communities across the Pacific Northwest that is operating on a tight budget and trying not to violate it’s...

September 13, 2012

Rivers in America have stopped catching on fire. Big industrial polluters have been reined in. Overall, water quality has improved under the Clean Water Act.

Clean Water: The Next Act

But for all of its successes, the landmark environmental law was never designed to control contaminants that emerged after its 1972 passage. These pollutants are affecting the environment in new and different ways.

Consider the feminized fish of Puget Sound.

That’s something Lyndal Johnson has been doing a lot of lately. Johnson is a fisheries biologist and toxicologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She and a team of scientists were out sampling English sole –- a flatfish common to the sound’s Elliott Bay — when they noticed something, well, fishy.


Lyndal Johnson. Credit: NOAA


September 12, 2012

OREGON CITY, Ore. — Dave Sohm’s house is immaculate. Every tool in the garage has its own hook. The kitchen countertops gleam.

But in his house –- as with most houses –- toxic chemicals are hiding in plain sight.

Sohm wants to know where. Clean Water: The Next Act

“I’m curious about what things there are,” he says. “I don’t know what impacts I may be having that I’m not even aware of.”

Jen Coleman, an outreach director for the Oregon Environmental Council is at Sohm’s house to help. Armed with a list of chemicals that have toxic effects on people and the environment, Coleman digs through cabinets, checks ingredient lists and compares them with contaminants that have been found in local waterways.

First on her list is a chemical called triclosan. It’s found in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and deodorant. And it can be toxic to fish.

Dave Sohm
Cassandra Profita/EarthFix

“I think the best place to start is...

August 16, 2012

Eight times in seven years, a state inspector asked Joe Lemire to keep his cattle off the banks of Pataha Creek. Why? Because they drop cow pies in the water. Cows trample pollution-filtering streamside plants. Cows mash the banks down so dirt gets into the stream, which had been targeted for cleanup by the government since the early 1990s.

The state even offered to pay for fences to keep the cows out of the stream.

But Lemire refused. He fired back that the state couldn’t prove  his cows were polluting the stream, which cuts an undulating path deep into the volcanic plains of southeast Washington. When the state issued him a formal order in 2009 to keep the cows away from the creek, Lemire appealed to a state pollution-hearings board.

This fall his case heads to the Washington Supreme Court in what is shaping up as a pivotal decision about farmers’ obligations to protect Northwest waterways. In a related struggle, Indian tribes are charging that farmers such as Lemire are killing salmon.

Lemire is a 69-year-old retiree raising cattle and hay. He’s become a cause célèbre in the countryside, where farm bureaus are soliciting residents to send money to cover the costs of his legal fight.

August 15, 2012

MOLALLA, Ore. — Mark Schmidt remembers fishing as a kid for steelhead on the Molalla River.

He also remembers how rain could ruin a day on the river.

“If we could so much as hear the raindrops on the shingles in the night, we were aware that we would not be fishing in the morning,” Schmidt recalls.

That rain sent dirt pouring from logging operations into the river. It made the water look like orange, wet cement. It often made the river unfishable for Schmidt – and downright unhealthy for the salmon and steelhead themselves.

That was in the 1960s. Today, the federal Clean Water Act and state forest practices laws require landowners and loggers to follow standards, called Best Management Practices, to protect the quality of myriad streams and rivers that flow through forests.

But some clean water advocates...

August 15, 2012

Sixty years of heavy traffic by logging trucks, along with trips by forest managers and recreation-seekers have taken a toll on roads that run through Northwest forests.

Tens of thousands of miles of those roads are crumbling, sending sediment and other pollutants into rivers and streams. Fish don’t like that, and many people in the Northwest really don’t like it, which is how the federal Legacy Roads and Trails Program began a few years ago.

A coalition of 18 groups formed the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative. They lobbied Congress and, in 2008, pried loose about $8 million to start chipping away at the federal forest road maintenance backlog in Washington and Oregon. The federal dollars peaked in 2010, but have been cut by more than half even though the roads continue to deteriorate and pollute the region’s waters.


July 18, 2012

Beside Seattle’s notoriously polluted Duwamish River, an excavator scoops up small pieces of waste metal and slings them onto a rusty mountain at Seattle Iron & Metals Corp. A pile of flattened cars and trucks squats nearby amid vast sheets of scrap metal.

For at least the last four years, this auto-shredder and metal recycler has dumped more pollutants into the river than allowed under the federal Clean Water Act, government records show. The levels have ranged higher than 250 times above what’s known to harm salmon that migrate through the river.

The company, which declined to comment for this story, has reported its violations to the government, as required by law. But instead of punishing the metal recycler, the Washington Department of Ecology encouraged the company to reduce its pollution levels. The agency also searched for a legal way to make Seattle Iron & Metals’ pollution limits more lenient, and says it plans to relax them soon.

The Seattle Iron & Metals story is emblematic of widespread failures in the nation’s efforts to end the toxic pollution that modern life has unleashed on America’s rivers, lakes and bays. The Clean Water Act, passed by a large bipartisan majority of Congress 40 years ago, was intended to...

July 18, 2012

Financial penalties for exceeding pollution limits under the Clean Water Act are relatively rare, we found in our investigation of enforcement in the Northwest.

Nevertheless, some polluters do get fined. The interactive map above, based on records provided to InvestigateWest and EarthFix by Oregon and Washington's environmental agencies and the EPA, which oversees enforcement in Idaho, shows the facilities fined since 2009.

The color of each placemarker indicates the total amount of the penalty or penalties, with blue the lowest and yellow the highest. Click on a placemarker to see actual dollar amounts.