Go Backstage is an occasional series explaining to readers the process of reporting and writing stories. The purpose of the series is to help readers understand the nuances of journalism and to add transparency to the process. If you’d like to know how a previous environmental story was reported, and the decisions that went into it, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about tonight’s public hearing in Delco, scroll to the bottom of this story.
Raise your hand if you’ve spent any time in Delco, North Carolina.
I hadn’t either, except for cruising through as a roundabout way to get from Wilmington to Riegelwood. But this hamlet in eastern Columbus County, population 348, is now at the center of an environmental justice story.
As I reported yesterday, Malec Brothers Transport, an Australian company, wants to operate a fumigation facility using a highly toxic chemical methyl bromide to kill pests in logs bound for China.
(I resisted the temptation to suggest titling the story My Chemical Bromance.)
Half of people living within a mile of the proposed facility — the area includes the tiny town of Acme and the only slightly larger Riegelwood — are Black, Latinx or American Indian.
These are primarily low-income areas. A quarter of households in Columbus County are below the federal poverty threshold.
But as Ashley Niquetta Daniels, who grew up in the area, told me, Delco residents “are humble, hard-working, decent people. They deserve to have their voices heard.”
In a previous Go Backstage post, I noted that my stories are based on documents and people. The challenge with Delco was that until I found Ashley via mutual friend on Facebook, I could find no one in the town who even knew the fumigation facility was in the works.
That’s often the case. In general, people don’t have the time to peruse the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s public hearings/comments list, which is how I learned about the proposal. People may not even know it exists. (Here’s the link for future reference.) After a long day at work, most folks wouldn’t have the energy to decipher arcane air permits. Cathy and Anthony Stafford, for example, are busy running a small business, Good Boy Hotdogs, behind their home.
This is the information gap the media and community leaders are supposed to fill.
While I often curse Facebook for its privacy breaches, in this case, it led me to Ashley via former colleague Fiona Morgan of News Voices North Carolina. The nonprofit helps engage local communities and connect newsrooms with the public. Fiona tagged me in a video Ashley posted to get the word out about the fumigation facility. Now I had a community connection. Without Ashley — and Fiona — the story would have been less engaging.
As for the documents, correspondence in the permit applications often illuminates the conflict between the polluter and the regulator. For example, the exchange DEQ and Malec Brothers was particularly interesting because it contained bewildering information: Workers at the fumigation facility would seal off leaks from the shipping containers using “sandbags, duct tape, etc.,” which supposedly is the industry standard in Australia.
In addition to speaking with DEQ, I interviewed James Harris, the CEO of Malec Brothers’ US operations. He politely answered my questions. But it’s also my job to challenge his answers or to put them in context. When Harris said there had been two public hearings on the facility, he was being factual. But the truth and the facts aren’t necessarily the same.
Harris failed to mention that these hearings were part of the county’s planning board and board of adjustment meetings — to most folks, arcane governmental bodies that rarely draw large turnouts for much of anything. Those boards also meet in Whiteville, 28 miles from Delco, where there were no public meetings about the facility. This hardly qualifies as public outreach.
I pored through the relevant scientific literature and government reports. Through a serious of random online searches, I located a scientist in New Zealand who had published articles in peer-reviewed journals about the health effects of methyl bromide. Because of his schedule and the time difference — New Zealand is 16 hours ahead — I had to call him at 1 in the morning, my time. (My first question to him: “How is tomorrow?” His reply: “Wonderful.”)
Finally, the time came to write. The 2,500-word story took about eight or nine hours, including factchecking. Until the seventh hour, I had not interviewed Ashley, but had the rest of the story built. Ashley was assertive, informed and inspiring. That’s when I knew I had the piece I had hoped for.