InvestigateWest drives change on environmental policies

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Paul Joseph Brown, ecosystemphoto.com

Once known as Cedar Lake, this body of water created by damming the Cedar River is now the Chester Morse Reservoir, the largest of two reservoirs serving Seattle. InvestigateWest revealed that the amount of water Seattleites can count on could be reduced by as much as half over the next 35 years and nearly three-quarters by the end of the century.

As InvestigateWest celebrates our tenth anniversary, we are highlighting some of the work we have done that has driven changes in public policy

InvestigateWest’s work in its first decade has repeatedly driven positive change in the environment, a topic of deep interest to many residents of the Pacific Northwest.

A recap:

  • A government researcher applies sealcoat at an Austin, Tex., test site.

    Our first major story exposed how a highly toxic class of manufacturing wastes was being painted onto pavement, parking lots and driveways across the U.S., and how the chemicals were showing up at alarming levels in American homes. Distributed nationally, this story inspired the Washington Legislature to ban the so-called coaltar sealants, making Washington the first state in the country to do so. Minnesota, Maine and more than 50 local governments around the nation have since banned the coaltar sealants. Home Depot , Ace Hardware, Lowe’s and United Hardware stopped carrying the products. And the main company importing coaltar from China reported in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it had halted imports because demand had fallen. Part of the reduction in demand occurred as a result of the local and state bans on the product. InvestigateWest provided the first national reporting on this issue through our news partner NBCNews.com (then msnbc.com), which was followed by other news organizations including The Chicago Tribune and USA Today. 

  • Our revelations on howlobbying by The Boeing Co. and its allies torpedoed the state’s proposed rules on toxic fish spurred a spate of editorials and reporting by other news outlets, elevating the issue to the point that the new governor, Jay Inslee,  stepped in and appointed a special panel of advisors. Regulations at the time effectively allowed anyone who regularly ate fish from local waterways to consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals, endangering the health of tribal members, sport fishermen and others.  coalition of environmental groups  cited our reporting in launching legal action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July 2013, seeking to compel EPA to step into the process and force the state to act. Ultimately the EPA took over the process. (The Trump administration  has now declared that it may roll back the protections put into place by the Obama administration.) 
  • After InvestigateWest reported that the city of Seattle was abandoning longstanding goals for preserving open space amid an unprecedented building boom, the mayor  called off plans to sell off the largest piece of open space in the city’s land portfolio. The 30-acre parcel was expected to earn the city $5 million. Instead, it one day could be turned into a park — the last remaining place a new regional park could be sited. 

    Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

    Volunteers pick up trash at Seattle’s Gas Works Park, which is one of a number of contaminated sites that would receive funding for delayed cleanups.

  • In our 2019 legislative coverage, InvestigateWest was the only Washington news outlet to report how lobbying by the oil-refining industry was about to torpedo a long-sought increase in taxes on crude oil important to the state to fund cleanup of toxic waste sites and polluted rainwater runoff. The bill ended up passing and marked a rare loss in Olympia for the oil industry. 
  • Jerilyn Walley/South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

    Culverts placed too high above a stream make it impossible for salmon to continue upstream, cutting off more than 1,000 miles of prime spawning grounds.

    InvestigateWest was the only Washington news outlet to report in depth during the 2019 legislative session on an arcane issue: the need to unblock culverts, pipes that carry streams underneath roads, to open extensive salmon spawning grounds for the imperiled fish. In his budget veto message, Gov. Jay Inslee shifted $175 million from building roads to fixing culverts. 

  • Our  investigation into toxic road pollution and its effects on children’s health at school found nearly 30 public schools and more than 120 day cares within 500 feet of major roads in Washington, where health researchers say traffic pollution can aggravate asthma, increase absenteeism, and harm developing immune systems.

    Heather / FLICKR

    More than a dozen schools are located in the pollution plume created by traffic on Interstate 5.

    The series  prompted Seattle Schools to begin notifying all principals of unhealthy air days and advise them to keep children indoors for recess. The district also announced new plans to upgrade a decades-old ventilation system at John Marshall Junior High to better protect student health. Using InvestigateWest’s reporting and methodology,  newsrooms in San Diego and Ohio replicated our story, finding dozens of schools in the danger zone and equally lax oversight about where facilities get built. 

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