The power of regional investigative reporting

We have good news about the news business to share. Our work makes a difference! InvestigateWest’s groundbreaking story on the hazards of chemotherapy exposure for health care workers has resulted in the passage of two laws improving worker safety in Washington state, signed by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire in April. One of the laws establishes an occupational cancer registry in the state, and the other regulates better regulates toxic compounds, including chemo drugs, in the workplace. That story first appeared on our web site, on msnbc.com, The Seattle Times and in a documentary we co-produced with KCTS 9. In addition, a measure banning toxic pavement sealants also was signed into law by the governor. That effort came after InvestigateWest  wrote about the issue just over a year ago. With the governor’s signature, Washington state became the first state in the nation to ban the sealants, joining a handful of smaller governments across the nation that have taken similar steps. That work appeared on our web site and on msnbc.com.

College announces changes in sexual assault policies

The sexual assault expert hired by Reed College last year has submitted his resignation with the elite private college still embroiled in turmoil over its sexual assault policies, a set of disciplinary procedures that the college itself recently determined were partially out of compliance with federal law.With Reed faculty joining their voices to a mounting student campaign for change, the college has already made changes in its polices to meet federal legal requirements. Kevin Myers, director of strategic communications for Reed, said additional policy changes are on the way. Some of those changes were announced to students Wednesday.The sometimes fierce debate on campus has caused clashes between students and administrators, provoked alumni, spurred graffiti and flyers on campus, and prompted guerilla theater in the college dining room. Though the college hired a sexual assault expert last year, in part to help navigate reforms underway since August 31, the expert, Pete Meagher, has told the college he is leaving May 31, with changes still pending.Fifty-eight percent of Reed College students signed a petition urging policy reform, presented to the college president, board of trustees and faculty and student governments April 22. Faculty also submitted a petition, saying the college may be inadvertently harming sexual assault victims through its policies, and some student victims and advocates think Reed is violating federal law.

Ballard rain gardens: a green solution gone wrong

When Seattle was planning its first extreme-green makeover of a city block, residents competed for the honor. And in 1999, the winning street in the Broadview neighborhood got a gorgeous facelift complete with new sidewalks and verdant roadside rain gardens with shrubs and grasses.But when the city recently tried going green in the Ballard neighborhood, homeowners there felt like they got stuck with the booby prize.The rain gardens installed by the city last summer and fall haven’t worked as planned. The gardens, which look sort of like shallow, sparsely-planted ditches running between the road and sidewalk, fill with water – and stay filled up. Some of the rain gardens drain over the course of hours or days, but some become mini ponds until the city comes to pump out the water.Many of the residents are not pleased. They worry that the swamped gardens are a drowning hazard for young children, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and will lower their property values. There’s even a neighborhood blog calling for their removal. “We feel badly,” said Nancy Ahern, deputy director for utility-systems managementfor Seattle Public Utilities, the department that installed the rain gardens. “It’s been hard on this community.”

Research points way to sustainable solutions

When you mention Puyallup to most Northwesterners, the city’s fall fair is the image most likely brought to mind. But this suburb of Tacoma is also home to a research center that’s on the leading edge of technology used to cleanup and curb toxic stormwater runoff.Nationwide, cities and counties are spending billions of dollars trying to reduce the amount of polluted runoff that fouls lakes and bays, floods homes and businesses, and triggers erosion. The rainwater gushes across from highways, streets, parking lots, roof tops, lawns and farms, scooping up oil and grease, pesticides, metals and other toxic chemicals as it goes.This spring, the Washington State University’s Puyallup Low Impact Development Research Program is launching projects that scientists hope will help slow that flow of water and treat the pollutants.The WSU researchers are testing “green” solutions for stormwater runoff, including rain gardens and porous pavement. There’s a huge demand for more information about how to maximize the use of these natural strategies.“Our goal is to help get this stuff on the ground as fast as possible and operating as well as it can,” said Curtis Hinman, director of WSU’s Puyallup program, of the green technologies.Seattle, Portland, Bremerton, Lacey and Spokane are among the numerous cities installing natural stormwater solutions, which are also known as low-impact development or LID. For the most part, they’ve performed well, reducing and cleaning up runoff.But as was recently demonstrated in Seattle when city-built rain gardens in the Ballard neighborhood turned into muddy messes, there’s a pressing need for more data on how these systems work.

InvestigateWest’s reporting fuels two worker safety bills to be signed by governor Wednesday

Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign two bills Wednesday  that will help protect healthcare workers from dangerous drug exposures, making Washington the first state in the country to have enforceable safe-handling standards.The lawmaking has gotten the attention of the federal government as well, which this week issued a letter to healthcare workplaces, advising them to update their safety practices. The letter, signed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and The Joint Commission (the national hospital accreditation agency), highlighted the potential for serious adverse occupational health effects.“This is a victory,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, Director of the Occupational Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose research has shown chromosomal damage in workers who handle chemotherapy.Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices, which showed that lack of workplace regulation was resulting in workplace contamination and worker exposures. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.SB 5594, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, requires the state to regulate chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs by creating a safe-handling standard for healthcare workplaces. “It is unacceptable that health-care workers risk exposure to deadly chemicals on a daily basis while on the job.  This measure could literally save lives by requiring the development of workplace safety standards for these professionals,” Kohl-Welles said.

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.

New partnerships for InvestigateWest

InvestigateWest teamed up with KING 5 TV, producing an in-depth look at air safety in the skies over Washington state.The story might open your eyes next time you drag that carry-on aboard the plane. On average, more than 150 close calls are happening every day, KING’s Jim Forman reported. A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle, InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure reported.  Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.Reporting by both Forman and McClure found that NASA’s reporting system, designed to identify and prevent problems, also serves as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for reporting pilots and controllers.”If you cause a car crash, drivers can’t get off the hook simply for admitting fault. But in the case of pilots or other air safety professionals, if they are willing to admit they were in the wrong, the FAA won’t hold the report against them,” Foreman reported. “It also waives fines and penalties including the most serious — revoking a pilot’s license.”Part one of Forman’s report includes a video presentation with special graphics highlighting the risks posed by near-miss collisions. Part two of the report focuses on the most congested airspace over Washington state.

How non-profit journalism is changing the “news ecosystem”

InvestigateWest’s stories on msnbc.com this week outlined how a super-toxic second generation of rat poisons is mysteriously seeping into the environment, and how the government took a generation to pass rules to keep these rodenticides out of the hands of young children. That might have remained a buried and unnoticed piece of history if not for a new movement sweeping America: nonprofit journalism. It’s an important force that is likely to become a key part of what folks are calling an evolving “news ecosystem” in this country.This week’s pairing of the efforts of two nonprofit journalism entities with the for-profit msnbc.com is an example of the kind of experimentation that’s becoming common. I wrote the rat-poisons story for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia that I helped to found in 2009.The story idea and the assignment came from Marla Cone, editor at Environmental Health News, another nonprofit journalism center, whose mission is to advance public understanding about environmental health issues. Cone won many accolades as a longtime environmental reporter at the Los Angeles Times before joining EHN in 2008. (Her book “Silent Snow” documents the shockingly high levels of toxic contamination in the Arctic.)

Q&A with Jordan Barab, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Labor for OSHA

Read the whole package here.We asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration Jordan Barab what the agency charged with protecting American workers is doing to protect healthcare workers on the job. Here’s what he had to say.Note: These answers, presented in their entirety, were in written response to questions submitted by InvestigateWest after multiple attempts to obtain comment from OSHA for these stories.  Q. Why are there OSHA standards that specifically relate to other healthcare workplace dangers, such as radiation, and other hazardous chemicals, such as sterilizing agents or benzene, but not for hazardous drugs?A. The process of setting regulatory priorities for new standards is always a challenging one for OSHA because there are so many serious safety and health hazards facing the Nation’s workers across all the industries in our very diverse economy.  In determining the best course of action to correct a particular hazard, OSHA must take a variety of issues into account, including resource limitations, because standards promulgation is such an intensive and lengthy process.  The Department of Labor publishes its Regulatory Agenda twice each year to notify the public of its priorities.