New Orleans landfill — finally!

by Emily Atkins

I was pleased to see a news item on the wires today concerning the New Orlenas ASL site, a notorious old Superfund landfill that was submerged by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. Although I won't take credit for the coverage of the unfolding story (and I wasn't the only one to worry about contamination in general), I will take credit for being the first journalist to write specifically about the ASL site and figure out from map overlays that it was submerged under floodwater, soon after the hurricane hit. (I reproduce the intial news item below, that we covered in more detail in the subsequent print magazine.) I'd like to share with readers my frustration in trying to share this story with the major news outlets in the U.S. and one happy outcome. I have contacts in the USA who know producers at CNN, NBC, ABC etc. and they put me in touch with those producers; I emailed those producers the story, and never heard back. I could understand why they were focused on the humanitarian crisis in the early days of the event, but what frustrated me was that after some time, TV stations like CNN started to "jump the shark" a bit and show highly repetitious footage and run stories that seemed increasingly frivolous. It looked to me like they were trying to fill air time, and were desperate for a fresh angle. That's why I couldn't understand them ignoring not just the contamination story in general (there was very little perspective or detail offered to viewers) but this especially scary "made for prime time" angle of the flooded Superfund site. But there you go, you never can figure what the TV stations and larger papers are going to cotton on to. Then an independent producer who sells his stuff to major networks got hold of my story and pitched it. Someone at National Public Radio (NPR) took an interst, but did nothing with the story. I was told to expect a call any time. No call came. I then found out that a reporter at NPR took my story and developed her own version, which ran on NPR. She gave me no attribution at all. I actually sent her an email and told her that her actions felt like intellectual property theft to me. I was steamed, as was the independent producer who had promoted the story in the first place (and had conducted a pre-interview with me on the phone.) She (predictably) blew me off with an email saying she had the idea anyway and other people had contacted her about the ASL site and so on. (Yeah, sure.) So it was satisfying when yet another producer for NPR called me out of the blue, having independently stumbled across my ASL site story by Googling on the internet. He was intrigued and conducted an interview over the phone. His interview with me ran on a highly popular morning program that runs during the rush hour, which is when most people have their radios turned on in their cars. The show has about half a million listeners. I was very satisfied that at last my version of the story got out, with my name attached to it. As an aside, a technician attended my end of the phone interview, because it had to be synced digitally with the NPR studio in the U.S. After he heard the interview, he commented that he has a lot of experience with that NPR radio show and he suggested that of the 15 minute conversation, about four minutes would actually make it to air after editing. And he added that it would likely be the most sensational statements I made, quoted out of context. When I heard the program, I found he was absolutely right. The interview was quite good, but the producers definitely ran with the most "shocking" statements, minus the more subtle context. The whole experience made me glad I work for a trade magazine where we can take the time and space to tell stories in more detail and in context, and not the superficial radio or TV media, where that sometimes ephemeral "media is the message." Postscript: Over time I'll follow up on this story and find out what the government does (or does not do) about investigating possible contamination from the old landfill, and a couple of others that were also submerged by Katrina's floodwaters.