Paddling in sludge to get the story

In an era of smartphones and social media, an AP team opted for a more rudimentary tool to get the story: a canoe. The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes describes how AP journalists paddled into the middle of a river to get a firsthand look at a coal-ash spill in North Carolina, determine the scope of the mishap and keep AP ahead of the competition:

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s the most important word in journalism? How about “go.” Sometimes, you just have to go there. Even when there is out in the middle of a dirty river best reached by canoe.

That’s just what Michael Biesecker, Raleigh newsman, and Gerry Broome, Raleigh photographer, did when they sensed that the impact of a big coal-ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., could be much worse than anyone was letting on. Turned out they were right. They could see that plainly when they paddled out into the middle of the ash-choked Dan River.

Biesecker had hit upon the idea of using the canoe – his canoe, by the way – as he and Carolinas News Editor Tim Rogers talked over the best ways to examine exactly what the spill had done to the river. Biesecker loaded it onto his car, and they were off. While he and Broome were putting it in the river, a man affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., offered to go with them in his own canoe. They agreed and he showed them to some places along the river.

Back at the spill site, Duke Energy officials and state regulators were trying to downplay the effects even as the river turned a deathly looking grey. Biesecker and  Broome started to find the elements of a very different story when they hit the river, the only journalists to do so at that point.

From the canoe, Biesecker was able to report that downstream of the spill, gray sludge was several inches deep. That became evident when a paddle was pushed down into the muck. In addition, the AP team saw that the riverbank was coated for more than two miles. And when the Dan crested overnight, a distinctive gray line stood in contrast to the brown bank, “like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

Their reporting put the AP ahead on the extent and immediate effects of the spill even as hundreds of Duke workers scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of the 27-acre pond where the toxic ash had been stored. Up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river.

More would be revealed in test results and court filings over the next four days, as Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte correspondent, kept the AP reporting well ahead. Biesecker followed with a comprehensive story on a dispute over arsenic levels in the river downstream from the spill. He and Weiss then provided with a look at how the state was acting to try and shield Duke from federal lawsuits over the coal ash sites the company long had insisted were safely engineered and maintained.

The eyewitness on-the-river story and Broome’s photos played well across the state and around the country, caught the attention of national environmental groups. The ensuing AP reporting on the spill was placed prominently even on the site of the Charlotte Observer, which has assigned a reporter to cover just the spill.

The AP scoops also spurred Duke to share their testing results with us. In addition, after not addressing the spill for much of a week, Gov. Pat McCrory went to the spill site the day after we asked him why he had not been there yet.

This week, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation into the spill, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issuing subpoenas seeking records from both Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Dan River incident and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina.

For paddling further than the competition to get their story, Biesecker, Broome and Weiss share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.