During his 10-week fellowship this summer, the Elon University journalism and media analytics double major joined 28 student journalists to investigate drinking water contamination in communities across the country.
Despite Bryan Anderson’s unexpected arrival, Dynasti Kirk, a resident near the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, didn’t hesitate to welcome the Elon University senior and give him a drink of water.
Decades ago, during the heights of World War II and the Cold War, Oak Ridge was a site where the Department of Energy produced enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. Today, the region is largely known for the resulting mercury contamination that prevents residents from fishing and swimming along a nearby creek. Many homeowners have legitimate concerns about the safety of their drinking water.
And that topic – what flows from taps in Oak Ridge – is exactly why Anderson, a journalism and media analytics double major, traveled to the Volunteer State in July.
“If I’m thirsty enough, I’ll drink,” Kirk told Anderson. “But I don’t trust it.”
For Anderson, that statement – plus the Sour Patch-like aftertaste of Kirk’s water – left a lasting impression.
“That’s when I saw the people actually being affected by this containment and the communities affected by decades of pollution,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s travel to Tennessee corresponded with his summer-long deep dive into the Superfund program, a U.S. federal government initiative designed to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. His investigation and subsequent news article, “Taxpayers pay billions for industrial contamination cleanup,” were part of the 2017 project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a multimedia reporting initiative produced by top journalism students and graduates.
In total, 29 journalism students from 18 universities examined drinking water contamination in communities across the country, reporting onsite, conducting hundreds of interviews, reviewing thousands of pages of statutes and other records, and building databases and data visualizations documenting the issues surrounding water pollution. The News21 program unveiled its comprehensive investigation, titled “Troubled Water,” on Aug. 14.
The students’ work began in January with a video-conferenced seminar that included reporting and research. In late May, Anderson and his fellow colleagues began a 10-week investigative reporting fellowship based out of a newsroom at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
The university’s downtown Phoenix campus served as Anderson’s primary home, and he worked closely with three other student journalists as part of the project’s industrial contamination team. The four-person group was tasked with understanding the common types of containments found at Superfund sites, highlighting the communities affected, and identifying companies responsible for pollution.
Anderson’s own reporting led him to scrutinize congressional budget data and the financial ramifications for industries and businesses responsible for contaminating water. His findings? During the past two-plus decades, American taxpayers have spent more than $21 billion in cleanup and oversight costs for properties polluted by dangerous wastes, while hundreds of companies responsible for contaminating water have paid little to nothing.
Additionally, Anderson served as a contributing reporter for News21’s “Industrial waste pollutes America’s drinking water” article and posted two topical blog posts, including an extensive look at the relationship between former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and Duke Energy.
As part of his Superfund reporting, Anderson contacted former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators, seeking comments regarding the future of the organization. It led to a sit-down interview with Christine Whitman, former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator, at her New Jersey home.
While Whitman and a few others welcomed Anderson’s inquires, his requests for interviews and information were often met with rejection, or just silence.
“There were at least 43 people who did not respond to me, refused to talk to me, or rescinded previously accepted interview requests,” he said. “The vast majority of people I reached out to would not talk.”
This proved to be a valuable learning experience for the young reporter. If direct phone calls and emails didn’t work, he tried officials’ social media accounts or press secretaries. If nothing came of his communications, Anderson scoured documents for previous comments.
“I learned you can’t force anybody to talk or make anybody want to talk with you, but you can be very persistent,” Anderson said. “Don’t say, ‘they declined to comment,’ so easily. Polite persistence led to some of the best interviews.”
He added, “People have a right not to comment. But others’ silence won’t stop me from asking tough questions.”
That said, Anderson found environmental agencies such as the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to be valuable resources – and the same for local municipalities.
“It’s when you get into federal oversight that you run into a lot more hardships in getting people to talk to you,” he said.
Anderson also praised the unwavering support he received from the News21 leadership team, led by Executive Editor Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Editor Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post. Likewise, Anderson singled out News21 staff members Christina Leonard, Alex Lancial and Jim Tuttle for their invaluable guidance.
It was Lancial and Tuttle who helped Anderson create a Superfund explainer video to accompany his bylined article. The end result is compelling. But Anderson’s quick to note the influence his editors had on the project as a whole, as well as the powerful video footage compiled by fellow News21 participant Claire Caulfield. He also mentioned several other colleagues he enjoyed working with.
“These editors are the best of the best,” Anderson said. “And Jacquee is just an incredible person in addition to all the mentorship and feedback and editing. She likes to make you think she is intimidating, but she wants what’s best for you and best for the product.”
Anderson said Petchel’s call-to-action phrase, “wage a daily war on boring,” will stay with him.
Admittedly, the Elon senior said he wasn’t initially interested in the topic of water pollution, but he quickly found the investigation gripping, digging into topics that he was passionate about.
“Everyone is affected by water. Everybody needs water. But very few people – myself included – knew very much about it going into the project,” Anderson said. “And while the topic turned out to be technical, I have a much greater understanding and appreciation for the complexities that surround it.”