Tipsheet for Stories in Your Own Watershed

July 15, 2013

Editor's Note: This is the sidebar to "IJNR Institute Inspires Reporters To Get on Their Boots" by Adam Hinterthuer.

Here are some story ideas that came out of our institute for similar stories in your watershed.

Agriculture and Water Quality

After drought ruined many Midwest crops in 2012, farmers are trying to make up for the losses, often by planting corn right up to their property lines. What will the increased production and subsequent loss of buffer strips mean for lakes, rivers and streams as ag runoff increases? Will 2013 be a bumper year for low water quality issues like algae blooms (see: Erie, Lake)?

  • Phil Robertson — professor of ecosystem sciences, Kellogg Biological Station: (269) 671-2267;
  • Jeff Reutter — director, Ohio Sea Grant College Program, Stone Laboratory, and Great Lakes Aquatic Ecosystem Research Consortium, The Ohio State University: (419) 285-1800;

As always, there’s an EPA webpage for that.

And, in many states, it’s the Department of Natural Resources (or equivalent) that encourages and enforces best practices and slow runoff on farms. Some, like Wisconsin, even have cool interactive maps.

Fundraising for Superfunds

Cleaning up legacy pollution isn’t cheap, and getting money from the “potentially responsible parties” isn’t easy. Original polluters are often long gone, non-existent, or bankrupt. On the Allied Paper property, the current owners filed for bankruptcy and the EPA settled with the company for $53 million, far lower than originally hoped and setting a precedent for other responsible parties. The federal government (and taxpayers) end up with the rest of the tab.

It’s Gotta Go Somewhere

Just because toxic waste gets removed from a Superfund site, doesn’t mean it’s gone. Across the country, only a couple of dozen facilities are licensed to receive some of American industry’s more toxic by-products. Where are these sites? Who keeps them up to code? Are their environmental concerns to be considered in the moving of millions of cubic yards of waste?

The Crude Beneath Our Feet

While national media attention is fixed on TransCanada and the proposed Keystone XL, crude derived from the oilsands of Alberta is already coursing through U.S. pipes. Enbridge’s was the first spill, but as Exxon’s March 2013 “discharge” in Arkansas shows, probably not the last. There are ways around the presidential permitting process. Who else is laying pipe to get heavy crude to foreign markets? What have we learned that will inform future cleanup efforts?

  • Tip: Considering oil companies’ ability to install no-fly zones above spills and freeze journalists out of the site, it might be hard to find sources who were there when the spill occurred and can offer observations from the front line. An advanced Twitter search, though, can get you tweets from a specific time range and latitude and longitude reading, potentially leading to sources who had firsthand experience in the story.
  • John Griffin, Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan: (517) 372-7455,
  • Josh Mogerman – deputy director, National Media, Natural Resources Defense Council: (773) 531-5359;

Cleaning Up “New” Crude

The Enbridge spill became a case study for responding to spills of Alberta crude. What worked and what didn’t? Are there ways to know what we’re dealing with before a company grudgingly gives up its “trade secret?” Human health, etc.

The New Dam Debate

Decades after the giant dam-building boom in the U.S., many of those dams are deteriorating. States are now moving to remove defunct dams as a quick way to restore aquatic habitat and allow passage of native fish upstream. But dam removal has its down sides. Invasive fish species can also gain access to whole new sections of river. And those dams often trapped contaminated sediment, preventing the spread of toxic waste downstream. Is a dam likely due for removal where you live? If so, it’s probably being debated right now.

  • Check with your state’s department of environment or natural resources for information about dams. In Michigan.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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