By almost any objective measure, the fledgling nation of South Sudan is an unmitigated disaster — reeling from a violent power struggle that’s left an estimated 50,000 people dead just in the past three years. Last week, as the country turned five, renewed factional violence reportedly killed as many as 270 more and displaced thousands before leaders agreed to a ceasefire on Monday.
While opposition forces are responsible for some of the historical bloodshed, South Sudanese government forces “bore the greatest responsibility” for human rights violations in 2015, according to a United Nations report. Those government forces have raped and murdered civilians, recruited child soldiers and looted civilian property.
Meanwhile, more than 5 million people in South Sudan are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the World Food Programme’s estimate, and many of them face “unprecedented levels of food insecurity,” say U.N. agencies. One in five South Sudanese have fled their homes, according to international development organization Mercy Corps.
But while the South Sudanese government largely claims it doesn’t have enough money to fix these problems, the struggling government was able to spend $2.1 million on Washington, D.C., lobbying and public relations firms from 2014 through the end of 2015 — $2.1 million to buff up its image, keep U.S. aid flowing and stave off harsher U.S.-backed sanctions in response to its atrocities.
That cash has gone to folks like former Republican U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, as well as R&R Partners, the firm famous for the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” campaign. And a hunk of South Sudan’s money went to lobbying giant Podesta Group, led by high-profile Democratic Party fundraiser Tony Podesta.
Podesta’s brother, John Podesta, is Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, and also led President Obama’s transition team and served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Among the Podesta operatives who worked on the South Sudan account: former high-level officials of Bill Clinton’s Defense Department and Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
It’s all perfectly legal—or almost all of it, anyway. There are questions about whether everyone who flakked for South Sudan complied with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires foreign governments and other foreign actors to detail how they’re attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy and laws.
Beyond that, though, a variety of critics contend that South Sudan’s relationships with U.S. power brokers are just the latest distasteful symptom of how Washington really functions. As the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported, countries with the worst human rights records have increasingly sought help from Washington lobbyists and PR professionals. In fact, South Sudan was a relatively small player among a boatload of troubled nations that together inked more than $168 million worth of U.S. lobbying and PR contracts from 2010 to 2015.
Regardless of human rights abuses, if you have the cash, it’s likely there’s a firm happy to smooth the rough edges and represent your interests in the hallways of the State Department or corridors of Capitol Hill. For the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless or even the tortured or families of the dead, scoring meetings with lawmakers or airing grievances in the nation’s capital is a far more daunting assignment.
A troubled history
The history of South Sudan, though short, is both complex and troubling.
In 1983, when Sudan was still one nation, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army began fighting the Khartoum-based Sudanese government over control of resources and the marginalization of some ethnic groups.
After the war ended in 2005, the south gained autonomy. Then — following Sudan People’s Liberation Movement leader Salva Kiir Mayardit’s election as president — South Sudan won full independence in 2011. A relatively peaceful period ensued. But in December 2013, President Kiir accused Vice President Riek Machar, a former commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, of attempting a coup and fired him and Kiir’s whole cabinet, sparking brutal combat between the two rivals’ loyalists.
Divisions split around ethnicities, pitting the Nuer groups, like those loyal to Machar, against Dinkas, like Kiir and his forces. In an August 2015 peace agreement, both sides agreed to a unified government and end to warfare, but promises were repeatedly broken. Most recently, in April, Vice President Machar made a much-delayed return to the capital of Juba, a provision of the peace deal, but he has been living in a makeshift camp with armed soldiers and a supply of weapons. Kiir and Machar met to discuss further implementation of the peace agreement last month, but the situation remains volatile.
Against that backdrop, Washington has struggled to figure just what to do in regard to the situation in South Sudan.
The U.S. has spent $1.6 billion since the war began in December 2013 on humanitarian aid for the South Sudanese. In 2014, President Barack Obama and the Treasury Department authorized modest, targeted sanctions to freeze assets and halt travel of two low-level military commanders from either side of the conflict. In July 2015, the U.N. Security Council approved the addition of six individuals to its sanctions list in order to freeze assets and ban travel. The United States then added two of the six individuals to its sanctions list.
But various advocacy groups and some in Congress believe that far more forceful U.S. action is required, especially against Kiir and the sitting government; they have repeatedly cited tougher sanctions and an arms embargo as potential tools to address the conflict in South Sudan.
Such sanctions, if strictly enforced, could create leverage over warring parties and halt the efforts of military commanders who are “perpetuating the conflict,” said Ian Schwab, director of advocacy and impact strategy for the Enough Project. The nonprofit conducts field research and makes policy recommendations on global issues relating to genocide and mass atrocities.
In a recent op-ed, U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., and Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., acknowledge that an arms embargo would be belated but they encourage it as a way to “blunt the fighting in the medium term and put warring parties on notice that they cannot continue ignoring the peace agreement.”
U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., sponsored legislation on South Sudan last July to bring attention to the conflict and support actions like an arms embargo or expanded sanctions on warring parties. The legislation hasn’t moved since it was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations in August 2015.
At an appropriations hearing in February, Rooney asked Secretary of State John Kerry about U.S. plans with the international community to impose such an arms embargo and tougher sanctions on “individuals who’ve committed violations of international humanitarian and human rights law” in South Sudan.
“I don’t think South Sudan has a better friend than the United States,” Kerry responded, adding that if the nation’s leaders continue to fail on delivering its commitments in the peace agreement, “the international community is absolutely prepared” for individual sanctions.
But the administration has not added anyone to the list of sanctions since July 2015, nor has it pursued an arms embargo. A State Department spokesman, in an e-mailed response to questions, says the administration remains “committed to seeing the peace agreement implemented” fully and has not hesitated to criticize the actors that hinder it.
The spokesman added that the administration’s policy has not been influenced by lobbyists and has “always been driven by the desire to catalyze progress in the peace process.” Since the administration’s sanctions last year, “we believe the threat of further action was key” in advancing the peace process, the email said.
But some remain exasperated. Shortly after Machar’s return to Juba, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., noted the United States’ hesitation in adopting measures to help stop the war, calling the idea of an arms embargo “an empty threat” in a hearing of that House Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee.
The policy and politics remain muddled, and it is impossible to directly attribute this lack of further action against the South Sudan government to the lobbying and PR campaign. But those advocating a more vigorous stance contend that the lobbying and PR created a misleading narrative that contributes to the current paralysis.
Human rights advocates note their messages are often drowned out by those of well-funded lobbyists.
“We don't have enough resources and capacity to deflect against that sort of firepower, so we are effectively muzzled,” said Maran Turner, the head of human rights organization Freedom Now. “That means that the messages that are coming from [PR firms] are what are getting to the various places in the U.S. government.”
Those efforts by lobbyists and PR firms were setbacks for groups working to encourage action by Congress, added an expert on South Sudan’s humanitarian situation who asked not to be named for security reasons.
“They’re spreading completely false information and undermining the efforts of a united international community that’s seeking to bring peace to a country that’s had more years of conflict than of peace since it was founded,” the expert said of the lobbyists.
Close to home
For Mayom Bol Achuk, it’s all a little more personal.
He recently held an outdated gold iPhone 3 as he recounted the details of his life — bearing witness to a long-ago civil war in his home country, spending a decade in a refugee camp as a Sudanese “Lost Boy” and later being chosen for resettlement in the United States, where he attended college and graduate school.
His friends have joked with him about the old phone, he says, but he won’t give it up — because it holds photographic proof of violent atrocities he witnessed in Sudan and helped save his life after he returned there.
That was in the summer of 2012, when Achuk went back to South Sudan to work for a USAID-funded agricultural program, in part to confront the memories of his past that haunted him “I feel like the only way to get rid of these bad memories,” he said, “is to go back home and get reconnected with my people and the land.”
But just a year-and-a-half later, the bad old memories were replaced by bad new ones, as he found himself again in the middle of a war. After that old iPhone documented the bodies of 32 people killed for being suspected rebels, he knew it was time to go. After a few panicked days and nights, the iPhone helped connect him with a U.N. evacuation flight out of South Sudan.
These days, from suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, Achuk, 35, uses the phone in a battle that is far safer, but sometimes almost as aggravating. He’s tried to connect with congressional offices and advocates in Washington to educate them about conflict in his home country, as part of a loose network of former Lost Boys.
But it’s been frustrating, he says. A narrative spread that portrayed South Sudan — in the words of a press release — as “committed to upholding the democratic ideals of an elected government.” The government is simply “defending itself and its people against the brutal actions of [the opposition]” — or so the press release said. Paid lobbyists and professional message peddlers repeated the story in social media, press releases and meetings with lawmakers and administration officials.
Achuk’s reaction to this argument is emotional. The firms working for South Sudan, he said, are profiting from war.
“You are benefiting, you are a beneficiary of a war situation,” he said. “This is blood money.”
That South Sudan government press release, circulated last July, came from a firm called R&R Partners, a Las Vegas-based marketing and lobbying agency with 330 employees and offices in nine cities, including Washington. The firm is best known for coining that promotional phrase, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
The firm is led by Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime friend and PR consultant for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. His profile on the R&R website begins with a quote from The New York Times: “Every dream needs a merchant, every myth a mythmaker. In Las Vegas, that job falls to Billy Vassiliadis.” The website profile goes on to say that Vassiliadis has been “swaying opinions, shaping public policy and persuading the hard to persuade … for more than 30 years.”
Vassiliadis said he was not personally involved in the South Sudan contract, but in addition to helping South Sudan, his firm has also worked for the Indonesian government, Sri Lanka, Boeing and Busch Gardens. The firm’s website mentions that R&R has worked in West Central Africa, but doesn’t mention South Sudan by name.
R&R nevertheless agreed to “develop a plan to heighten the visibility and positive image of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan in the United States,” a Center for Public Integrity review of the firm’s contract with South Sudan indicates.
R&R’s pro-South Sudan public outreach plan included communicating with nonprofits and U.S. government officials. The firm’s consultants contacted dozens of members of Congress, congressional staff, State Department officials, think tanks and nonprofits to discuss the issues of sanctions and the peace process, disclosures show.
“Sanctions only serve to weaken peace efforts and demoralize ambitions of the elected government,” reads a press release that R&R Partners prepared for South Sudan.
The poverty-stricken nation paid R&R Partners $900,000. That’s more than any other public relations firm South Sudan employed for communications designed to boost its image, secure financial aid and investment and discourage punitive measures by the U.S. government. The contract, which began in January 2015, ended at the close of 2015, though documents show that South Sudan still owes R&R another $900,000 payment.
R&R also set up a now-defunct social media campaign around the slogan “Stand up South Sudan,” on Twitter, describing the account as “a voice for the people and the Republic of South Sudan … focused on achieving peace and prosperity.”
Among those working on the South Sudan contract was Bill Owens, the former Republican governor of Colorado. Sean Tonner, the president of R&R’s Denver office, who also worked on the account, previously served as the deputy chief of staff to Owens during his gubernatorial tenure.
Last March, Owens wrote that “forces of evil have been on the march,” and warned that “terrorism thrives where civil society has collapsed,” in an op-ed in The Hill.
“I believe it is in our national interest to be engaged and to support the elected government of the world’s youngest nation,” he wrote of South Sudan.
The fact that Owens was paid $50,000 for his work on South Sudan through R&R went undisclosed in the commentary, which instead listed him as the 40th governor of Colorado and a senior fellow at the University of Denver's Institute for Public Policy Studies. The Foreign Agents Registration Act dictates that a “conspicuous statement” must be present on disseminated materials, disclosing the relationship between the firm and client.
Monica McCafferty of R&R Partners, who worked on the contract said in an email, “the failure to issue the disclosure on the op-ed itself was an inadvertent human error and mistake, made in haste.”
Owens did not respond to requests for comment.
McCafferty sent an emailed statement saying, “Our goal was to help end the civil war and direct more U.S. foreign aid to the nation.”
The firm worked with members of the South Sudanese community that “shared the vision of bringing long-lasting peace,” the statement continues.
“We stand behind our work. … All work our firm chooses to take on is done so deliberately,” she stated. “In this case, we knew that we were representing the elected, recognized side of government (as opposed to the rebel forces).”
R&R was not alone. Government affairs firm Watts Partners, which bills itself as “the largest African-American owned lobbying company in Washington,” represented South Sudan from July 2015 to February 2016 as a subcontractor with London-based advisory firm Arise Consult. The firm provided “government-to-government advocacy and business development advisory services” for South Sudan for $120,000, documents show.
Firm founder and chairman J.C. Watts Jr. is a former star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma who was considered an up-and-coming star in Republican political circles during his eight years representing Oklahoma’s 4th District in Congress, from 1995 to 2003.
The Watts Partners website does not mention South Sudan. And the firm submitted required disclosures to the Justice Department only after the Center for Public Integrity inquired about the relationship. Filings showed that Watts Partners met with lawmakers, State Department officials and nonprofits to discuss sanctions and U.S.-South Sudan relations.
Steve Pruitt, a senior partner at Watts Partners who worked with South Sudan, said the goal of the contract was “to help the government develop and increase communications with U.S. policymakers” concerning humanitarian aid and peace talks.
The contract was successful, he said, because in the end, parties signed the August peace agreement. And as for concerns over human rights violations, Pruitt said he was unaware of the government’s and opposition’s involvement in such acts.
“I have no direct knowledge on the part of either party as to what kind of atrocities, if you will, were being perpetrated,” he said. “I really can’t speak to that. I think our whole objective was to use our knowledge of the U.S. system and resources to help bring peace, and I think that’s what we focused on.”
The list goes on. KRL International began working on behalf of South Sudan in February 2014 to provide “a communications and advocacy program in support of efforts to consolidate peace, reconciliation and the development of priorities,” according to the contract.
The company describes itself online as a boutique consulting firm that tries to “bridge the divide between the United States and the world’s emerging markets.” Headed by longtime international consultant K. Riva Levinson, other KRL International clients include the government of Liberia, for which the firm writes that it has “sustained an aggressive advocacy effort” on its website.
Working on the South Sudan account was Eric Chinje, a Cameroonian national, who formerly worked for the World Bank. The contract cost South Sudan $600,000 and ended in May 2015.
KRL International was first introduced to its client in November 2013 before the outbreak of war, when South Sudan invited the firm to its country, KRL’s managing director Chris Beatty said in an email. The firm “returned to the country in February 2014, at the height of the conflict, to support mediating efforts to consolidate peace and reconciliation” Beatty continued. He did not respond to questions about human rights concerns in South Sudan.
The super-connected Podesta Group also worked for South Sudan, collecting $480,000 for its representation from March 2014 to December 2015, disclosures show. In regard to its global work, the firm’s website says it “knows where to go, who to talk to and what makes them listen.” One of the services offered by its global group is “reputation management.”
The company provided research, communicated with the press and lawmakers and counseled South Sudan on strengthening its ties to the U.S., the contract shows. In its outreach, the firm contacted dozens of members of Congress, State Department officials, nonprofits and newspapers, meeting with several in person to discuss U.S.-South Sudan relations.
Firm leader Tony Podesta, one of the Democratic party’s more active fundraisers over the years, has through March 31 helped Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign raise nearly a quarter-million dollars, federal records show.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Shortly after South Sudan gained independence, then-secretary Clinton welcomed the new government, saying, “We will work with you, we will stand with you, we will support you.” But her tenure as secretary ended in early 2013, 10 months before factional fighting broke out.
Podesta Group employees working on the account included a number of former high-ranking government advisers and Washington insiders.
- David Adams served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs and chief legislative adviser to then-secretary Clinton;
- Mark Tavlarides worked as the special assistant for international security affairs to the secretary of defense during President Bill Clinton’s administration; and
- Stephen Rademaker previously served as former assistant secretary of state, and headed State Department bureaus under President George W. Bush; he also served as a chief staffer on several committees on Capitol Hill.
When the Center for Public Integrity asked Tony Podesta about the contract by email, a communications strategist at the firm responded, stating, “It is our company policy not to discuss the work we do for clients other than what is publicly available.”
Reporters from the Center for Public Integrity and its reporting partner WAMU-FM, a Washington, D.C., National Public Radio affiliate, went to the firm in person to ask about the work, but upon identifying themselves as reporters, were told by a receptionist, “You gotta’ exit. You don’t have an appointment. Good day.” Podesta Group’s foreign lobbying has included other controversial clients — including Azerbaijan, Egypt and the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court, an arm of the Saudi government.
In Podesta Group’s words, South Sudan’s government is “committed to lasting peace, justice and accountability” and President Kiir “cares deeply about his people and their wellbeing,” according to a press release issued on behalf of the South Sudanese Embassy.
This glowing review, along with others, was sent to dozens of staff members both on Capitol Hill and in the State Department, disclosures show.
A U.N. report on human rights, accountability and reconciliation in South Sudan, released in March, offered a contrasting assessment.
“Despite repeated commitments to end the violence, protect civilians and punish perpetrators, to date, there is no evidence or available public information of any genuine efforts by the government to investigate, prosecute and punish violations and abuses, some of them amounting to international crimes,” the report states.
For its part, Podesta discouraged sanctions in press materials as something that “will undoubtedly lead to [the] collapse of [a] fragile peace agreement, resulting in potential loss of lives and suffering for the people of South Sudan.”
But the humanitarian expert said South Sudan’s lobbying efforts included statements that were “just blatantly, patently false” in portraying the nation.
“This is the first time ever, since I’ve done this job,” said the expert, “… that I’ve had to lobby against a professional lobbying firm which is trying to undermine peace, and human rights and humanitarian efforts.”
Seeking help in DC
But South Sudan’s lobbying is far from an isolated phenomenon. Egypt turned to Glover Park Group for help after cutbacks to military aid in late 2013 that came about because of the Obama administration’s disappointment in the slow progress toward democratization and fair elections. Last year with the help of Podesta Group, Azerbaijan successfully turned its image around from human rights abuser to friend of the United States.
Countries with the worst human rights records have increasingly sought Washington lobbyists and PR professionals since 2010, the Center for Public Integrity reported in December.
More than $168 million worth of contracts for lobbying was expended on behalf of troubled nations from 2010 to 2015. Russia and Saudi Arabia far outspent most countries on representation with more than $40 million each worth of contracts during that period. Firms like Ketchum, Qorvis/MSLGroup, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Squire Patton Boggs topped the list of those taking work from the governments with the worst human rights records. Other countries that spent millions to try to influence public opinion and policy included Egypt, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq and Azerbaijan.
Toby Moffett, a former congressman and current lobbyist for Mayer Brown, has years of experience representing foreign nations on Capitol Hill. For nations that are still developing or face problems like human rights violations, navigating Washington can be difficult, he said.
“The more of a developing country that you are, the more difficult it is to cut through the noise,” he said of D.C.
At his firm, Moffett asserted, clients must pass a tough screening process that examines how work would be paid for and whether there’s been progress made on any problems. However, “there’s firms that’ll do virtually anything,” he said.
And taking on the worst offenders might be worth it for some.
“I think the really bad guys have to pay a premium,” Moffett said.
Not surprisingly, some contend that South Sudan’s funds could have been better invested elsewhere than on reputation management in the U.S.
For one, the money could’ve helped avoid the dire food crisis that the South Sudanese currently face, said Daniel Sullivan, formerly director of policy and government relations for nonprofit United to End Genocide.
“There is no doubt that the million-plus dollars spent by the government of South Sudan on lobbyists could have been better used to relieve the suffering of millions of people in South Sudan,” Sullivan said. “Instead of focusing on public relations, South Sudan’s leaders should have focused on preventing the alarming food insecurity, effectively famine, decimating their people today.”
The South Sudanese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Others say the lobbying efforts were fruitless, while still others say it’s hard to tell, or is simply beside the point.
Capuano, who co-sponsored legislation on South Sudan and visited the nation last year, said his priority is the effective delivery of humanitarian aid. He expressed uncertainty that lobbying efforts could help the nation and said it’s unhelpful to play the “blame game” with the warring parties.
“I need to help people stop being murdered,” Capuano said. “That’s the moral high ground to me. And I will deal with anybody I have to deal with. I will withhold judgment on those people if I think it’ll help.”
But the situation is too violent for the South Sudanese government to hide their actions with lobbying, he said.
“No lobbyist, no matter how good they are, they can’t change the facts on the ground,” Capuano said.
Aid workers targeted
Even on Capitol Hill, where seemingly every moneyed special interest is vigorously represented, there have been moments of exasperation.
At a December hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, experts from USAID and the State Department, after some hesitation, confirmed that South Sudanese government forces, as well as the opposition, had intentionally targeted aid workers in violence.
“You ought to be embarrassed,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told representatives there from the South Sudanese Embassy.
Corker asked how a nation could accept more than $1 billion in aid from the United States while targeting aid workers. He then held up a press release, saying, “I would be embarrassed to send out the kind of press release that you sent out prior to this hearing.”
The press release had been sent to nearly 20 staff members on Capitol Hill and in the State Department just before the hearing. It praised President Kiir as a “hero” and blamed humanitarian challenges on a “lack of funds.” It also asked the U.S. and others to “redouble its efforts” to support South Sudan.
A Capitol Hill staffer who shared the press release with the Center for Public Integrity said there was no indication that a PR or lobbying firm was involved in the writing or distribution of the document.
But filings that the Center for Public Integrity requested from the Department of Justice reveal its creators in an email: “The Podesta Group provides representation to the government of the Republic of South Sudan.”
Patrick Madden of WAMU-FM 88.5, a Washington, D.C.-based National Public Radio affiliate, contributed to this report.
For the image on her new Twitter account, Congolese journalist Nanythe Talani features part of a quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
With Michelle Obama and her daughters recently in Africa to urge more support for girls’ education, it’s a good moment to consider the personal journeys of two African women investigative journalists, Nanythe (Na-NEETH) Talani, and her Liberian colleague, Wade (Wa-DEH) Williams. Their struggles and the challenges that lie ahead personify what the first lady’s trip is about. Obama’s first stop was Liberia.
Both Talani and Williams have just spent a transformative year at the University of Maryland on the U.S. State Department’s Humphrey Fellowships mid-career program, learning how they might improve journalism in their countries, discovering tools and techniques they are now eager to put into practice.
As they contemplate returning to Africa, King’s advice is on their minds. I spoke with both of them recently to hear more about what they learned in the United States, and what their countries need in order to develop a free and independent media.
Both come from small African countries that have suffered from years of war and instability. Liberia is the fourth-poorest country in the world, with a per capita gross national income of $370. Thanks to oil, the French-speaking Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) is further up the ladder at $2,720, but almost half the population there lives in poverty.
By the time they reached their teens, both women had experienced more trauma than most of us encounter in a lifetime. At age nine, in the midst of civil war, Williams became separated from her family. She managed to board a boat filled with people fleeing to neighboring Sierra Leone. Shortly before the boat arrived in port, it sank. Making it to shore, she spent the next seven years in foster care, returning to Liberia at age 16. She worked her way up from reporter to news desk chief as one of few women in the newsroom at the local paper FrontPageAfrica. In 2013, the government shut down the paper and imprisoned its editor-in-chief.
In 2014, Williams became one of the first journalists to report on Liberia’s raging Ebola epidemic, and continued to cover it non-stop for many Western news outlets, including the Associated Press, Bloomberg, The Guardian, Time.com, The New York Times and the Daily Beast, until it subsided.
Talani's youth and education were also punctuated by civil conflict. Close family members were killed. Her father fled the country, and she hasn’t seen him since. The university shut down periodically when the fighting came too close to campus. Earlier this year, the government shut down TerrAfrica, the Paris-based publication she worked for that did investigative stories.
In both Liberia and the Republic of the Congo, the media sector is fragile. Building and sustaining a viable media business is a formidable challenge, as is withstanding government pressures on news coverage.
So, what lessons do these women bring home from their year here?
• The power of online journalism and social media: We take the Internet for granted, but many newsrooms in Liberia, Republic of Congo, and other African countries lack even rudimentary Internet access (and sometimes electricity), depriving journalists of the most basic research tools to get information and fact-check stories. Few people in Liberia or Congo-Brazzaville have smartphones.Data can help raise peoples awareness and become the jumping-off point for investigations.
In the U.S., Talani and Williams were able to explore everything the Internet, multimedia, and social media have to offer. Williams created an online publication on Liberian politics with WordPress, and experimented with social media strategies to build an audience. Within two months she had attracted 30,000 readers in several countries, marveling at the lively discussions and feedback she got. She now hopes these strategies, seldom used in either Liberia or Republic of Congo, will help her publication gain traction.
“This could help me create a business model,” said Williams, “and help get more people engaged.”
Talani experimented shooting and editing photos and video. She started a Twitter account and learned how to engage her audience with it. She practiced doing radio spots at Voice of America.
• Data, polling, and surveys: “The whole issue of data-driven journalism is something we’ve never seen in Liberia,” says Williams. Data, she said, can help raise people’s awareness and become the jumping-off point for investigations. With Liberian presidential elections scheduled for 2017, she says, “We need to find a way to put data where journalists can find it, or develop it ourselves.”
• Transparency, accountability, and Freedom of Information: In both countries, even the most basic government data is frequently unavailable. Liberia has a freedom of information law but few know how to use it, and getting access to public documents is difficult. Their time in the U.S. has heightened both women’s awareness of the value of these laws.
Williams wants to cover topics like industrial pollution in Liberia’s capital Monrovia; the state of the country’s oil and gas industry; and the effects of coastal erosion on communities. She has explored possible mentoring and partnership arrangements with the U.S. Society of Environmental Journalists. Talani is eager to focus on wildlife protection, gender issues, and indigenous rights.
• Training and internships: Neither woman had ever had an internship before coming to the United States. They say their antiquated university media studies programs did not prepare them to work in a newsroom. Both have had to deal with untrained staffers who didn’t know the first thing about reporting. Now they are keen to improve university journalism curricula and establish internship programs to identify and attract better media hires.
• Ethics: Both women want to strengthen local journalistic ethics and independence, a challenge in countries where most journalists are underpaid and have come to expect cash in return for stories.
“People need to be taught the essence of good journalism, and about the whole issue of credibility,” says Williams.
Her time here provided a needed respite from reporting in Liberia. Several of the articles she wrote there raised hackles. When she broke traditional taboos to write about female genital mutilation, she received death threats. When she wrote about Liberia’s gay community, there were protests. After risking infection and death for a year reporting on the front lines of Liberia’s Ebola epidemic, she suffered from post-traumatic stress.People need to be taught the essence of good journalism, and about the whole issue of credibility.
Talani has had her share of obstacles, and has also been threatened for reporting certain stories.
In Western countries, journalists can access various types of assistance to confront these challenges. In Liberia and Republic of Congo, you’re on your own.
Both journalists and their Humphrey Fellow associates at American University’s Washington College of Law had a session last month to prepare them for the culture shock they will face upon returning home.
“You will think things can be done quickly,” they were warned. “And people will think you have money.”
For Williams and Talani, however, more is at stake. Will they be able to practice journalism according to their own high standards and lead others? Will they be physically safe? Talani is worried. Political conflict has resurfaced in Congo Brazzaville, and the government has been arresting journalists.
Energized and apprehensive, they prepare to go home.
This story originally appeared on the Investigative Reporting Workshop's website and is reprinted with permission.
Louise Lief is a journalist, educator, media trainer, writer, editor and producer. She has traveled to more than 70 countries, reported from five continents and has worked for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and web-based publications. She is Scholar-in-Residence at the American University School of Communication's Investigative Reporting Workshop.
July 13, 2016: This story has been clarified.
BOKOSHE, Oklahoma — Here in the land of wind-whipped, rolling plains, the gray dust, which sparkles in just the right light, seems inescapable. Residents of this town near the Arkansas line say they have spotted it on their grass, trees, ponds, barns, furniture and cars.
The source of Bokoshe’s enduring misery is coal ash, an often-toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Clouds of it, swirling like tornadoes at times, descend upon people while they sit in their yards and mow their lawns. The powdery material clogs swimming pools, air conditioners and chicken coops.
The ash, which contains harmful metals such as arsenic, chromium and lead, comes from a state-permitted disposal pit — operated by a company named Making Money Having Fun — fed by a power plant eight miles outside of town. Residents here began complaining about the dust to state regulators in 1998. More than a decade later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got involved and in 2014 finally acknowledged that the pit has shown “evidence” of escaping coal ash dust. But the grime that coats the town has not gone.
“I can look out onto the dump … and see the ash dust balloon up,” says Tim Tanksley, a Bokoshe native who lives a mile from the pit. He and some of his neighbors filed a class-action lawsuit against the pit operator and others, only to see the case dismissed.
What is happening in Bokoshe is a microcosm of a fierce — some say one-sided — battle over coal ash that has dragged on in Washington’s corridors of power for nearly four decades — and is not over yet. After a disastrous, billion-gallon spill of coal ash in Tennessee in late 2008, the EPA pledged to regulate this industrial waste. It then sat on its plan for five years. When agency officials finally acted, they chose the minimalist approach, setting baseline national standards for coal ash disposal at more than 1,400 sites nationwide while leaving regulation essentially up to the states. Under the coal ash rule, the agency has no authority to enforce its own requirements. At the same time, EPA officials determined that so-called beneficial uses, like the recycling that fills the pit here, could continue.
Utility companies and ash recyclers say such uses are safe if voluntary industry guidelines are followed. For some uses, however, the science argues otherwise. And for others, regulation has been passed on to the U.S. Department of Interior — which has been studying the issue for nearly a decade.
Meanwhile, residents of Bokoshe cannot help but feel victimized by what they say amounts to a cruel regulatory hoax — with no end in sight.
“They’re still dumping it, and we’re still breathing it,” Tanksley says of the coal ash. “It’s still making people sick.”
A weak rule
The situation in Bokoshe exposes the weakness in the EPA’s coal ash rule, the fallacy that dumping can continue under the guise of beneficial use. To encourage recycling of coal ash, the agency exempts from federal oversight any disposal method that meets this definition. And this gives carte blanche to sites like the Making Money pit, an old coal mine where disposal of coal ash is considered a beneficial use by the state.
For the purposes of coal ash recycling, there are two types of beneficial use: Encapsulated, in which, for example, the ash becomes part of concrete or wallboard; and unencapsulated, in which loose material is reused as fill for road construction or dumped in active and abandoned coal mines, a practice known as minefilling. The most common reuse method, minefilling remains unregulated at the federal level because of a loophole in the EPA’s coal ash rule. The EPA handed off regulation of the practice to the Interior Department, which has yet to act. The deferral was partly the product of vigorous lobbying by the utility industry over many years.
“If you choose to follow [industry] recommendations, then coal ash reuse is legitimate,” says Tom Adams, of the American Coal Ash Association, a group of utility companies and ash recyclers. He touts coal ash recycling as “one of America’s greatest recycling success stories.”
Evidence suggests otherwise. In 2012, a report prepared for the EPA analyzed a coal ash blend known as AgreMax, marketed by the AES Corporation as “structural fill” for construction — an unencapsulated beneficial use. Researchers found contaminants from the ash mixture can ooze into the environment. Tests showed that arsenic, boron, chloride and chromium could leach at levels up to 9,000 times safety standards.
In 2014, the EPA chronicled 158 cases in 32 states where coal ash compromised water quality. Of these, 22, or 14 percent, involved beneficial use. In some, pollution has degraded nearby water supplies enough to exceed safety standards. In others, the ash has sullied water on site. Some examples:
- In Rocky Mount, North Carolina, coal ash recycled as structural fill over 25 acres contaminated the groundwater of adjacent property with arsenic, mercury and lead, resulting in a $4,000 state fine.
- In Camden, Tennessee, coal ash used to fill a gravel quarry tainted two residential wells with boron and mercury; the EPA took emergency action after a resident had suffered “burning skin sensations” from the water.
- In Chesapeake, Virginia, developers reused 1.5 million tons of coal ash to build a golf course over a shallow aquifer, only to watch the ash blacken 25 residential wells.
“Structural fills have caused the same damage that [regulated] disposal sites cause,” says Lisa Hallowell, of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “They’ve proven to be dangerous.”
Problems have also been documented with minefilling at some of the nation’s coal mines, like the Making Money pit in Bokoshe. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences examined the risks associated with the practice and catalogued the ways coal ash can pollute ground and surface water. “The presence of high contaminant levels in many [coal ash] leachates,” the academy found, “may create human health and ecological concerns at or near some mine sites over the long term.”
In 2007, two environmental organizations — the Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice —examined minefilling at 15 coal mines in Pennsylvania and determined the ash had imperiled water quality at 10 of them. The study revealed rising levels of pollutants — arsenic, chromium, selenium — in water supplies after minefilling had begun. More recent reports have detailed similar pollution in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Richard Webster, of the public-interest law firm Public Justice, represents people living near minefills in those two Appalachian states. He says the EPA’s coal ash rule regulates landfills and some structural fills — two disposal methods similar to minefills — but leaves untouched the dumping of coal ash in coal mines. That matter is now in the hands of the Interior Department, whose surface-mining office oversees most of these operations. The department, while signaling the possibility of a federal minefill rule, has delayed any action for the past nine years.
“That’s the big irony from the EPA rule,” Webster says. “It is a giant loophole.”
Environmental advocates have begun pushing federal regulators to close it. Last November, 14 groups, including Public Justice, petitioned Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for a rule “to eliminate this dangerous regulatory gap.” The petition sets up yet another battle over coal ash, even as industry representatives challenge the existing EPA regulation. In January, members of Congress from both parties introduced the latest in a series of bills that would weaken national standards for coal ash disposal. Sponsored by U.S. senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — among the top Senate recipients of utility money over the years — the bipartisan legislation would eliminate the few limits on beneficial use.
A small mountain of ash
Nowhere does the debate over beneficial use resonate more than in Bokoshe, population 512, a desolate and decaying place situated atop a coal seam riddled with mine pits. Some brim with coal ash generated at the Shady Point Power Plant, in neighboring Panama. Owned and operated by AES, the 350-megawatt facility looks benign. Yet every year it sends hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash to fill up old strip mines in tarped, 25-ton trailers. Residents see a caravan of ash trucks, averaging 180 loads a day, barreling down a two-lane highway past modest homes and shops.
One of those abandoned surface mines is the Making Money pit, which straddles the southern edge of town. Encompassing two “cells” and 458 acres, the mine has taken in so much coal ash it is half full — 125 acres in the first cell; 129 in the second. AES has trucked in enough to cover the 70-foot-deep pit and create a miniature mountain. Stacked 50 feet high — and permitted to rise another 550 or so feet over the next 20 years — the darkened ash in the disposal pit dominates the landscape. By 2036, the pit could hold 9.2 million tons of it.
For decades, the Shady Point plant has treated Bokoshe and environs, in the words of Bridget Wood, an Oklahoma activist who spent months videotaping the ash clouds, “as if [it] is AES’s dumping ground.” Since 1991, when state legislators declared coal ash a beneficial use “in any active or inactive coal or non-coal mining operation,” the utility has embraced minefilling. State records show seven minefills permitted in the county where the AES plant resides, compared to three in Oklahoma’s other 76 counties. All told, the plant has covered 500 acres of pits with coal ash at varying depths.
Seven miles west of Bokoshe, in McCurtain, where the ash protrudes like an iceberg from a water-soaked pit, residents have complained about dust clouds, spurring two state notices alleging violations — one in 2011; the other last year. Some residents have hidden special hunting cameras in trees to expose what they believe to be improper ash disposal. Others remember similar troubles at a pit just east of Bokoshe, where the ash has hardened into gray mounds resembling the surface of the moon.
“You choked to death,” recalls Joy Arter, who lives a half mile from that pit and, for years, did not go outside without a mask because the ash dust “was so thick and smoldering.”
The Making Money pit began accepting coal ash in the late 1990s, whipping up dissent. By 2000, when operators officially applied for a permit, 44 Bokoshe residents had petitioned state regulators, objecting to the operation. At a public hearing, they expressed concern over “fugitive dust; ground water; surface water; [and] asthma,” according to a transcript.
The company, then named Making Money Having Fun, or MMHF, LLC, vowed to contain the ash and suppress the dust. In a 2000 letter, it assured the petitioners that “disposing of [coal] ash material in a safe manner … has advanced to ‘state of the art.’ ”
Waste generator AES, for its part, has portrayed coal ash as harmless, likening it to dirt. “They said you could put it on your peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich,” recalls Herman Tolbert, a rancher whose family has owned nearly 1,000 acres beside the mine pit for three generations.
AES declined interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity and did not respond to written questions. In a brief statement provided to the Center, the utility cited the dismissal of the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Bokoshe residents against it, the pit operator and others over the disposal at the pit, which, the utility says, “did not present facts that would prove Shady Point’s practices caused injury to any of the plaintiffs.”
The plaintiffs and their attorneys say they wanted the case heard in an Oklahoma state court and chose, for tactical reasons, not to present detailed allegations of their injuries while the case was in federal court. A federal judge ruled the residents’ lawsuit did not meet the technical requirements to allow them to try their case in state court.
The utility says “the environmental practices at AES Shady Point comply with all applicable environmental regulations.”
Operators of the pit, now named Clean Hydro Reclamation, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
‘Oxygen in use’
For years, people in Bokoshe saw the gray dust from the Making Money pit coat almost every surface in town. Gardens withered and crops died, residents say. Cows grew sick; calves were stillborn. Residents say ailments among their neighbors — from migraines to nosebleeds, heart conditions and respiratory problems — seemed to become commonplace.
Bridget Wood remembers visiting Bokoshe for the first time in 2009 and wondering why so many houses bore the same sign: “OXYGEN IN USE.” Canvassing the town, she met “all these people who were very sick,” she says, hooked up to oxygen, reliant on nebulizers. Some could not speak without gasping for breath. Others endured multiple bouts of cancer. No one connected their illnesses to the ash.
Leah Culwell, a school bus driver who for 30 years lived a mile from the pit, never questioned the company line on coal ash — until a capsized truck sent the material billowing over her bus. In the throes of a respiratory attack, her eyes swelled shut. She blew black mucus for days. Only then, Culwell says, did she suspect “this stuff is something more serious than they’re telling us.”
More than a decade would pass before residents knew the extent of pollution at the pit, where operators mixed coal ash with wastewater from oil and gas wells, another “beneficial use” permitted by the state. By 2009, the operation was taking in an estimated 1 million barrels of it annually, says Bert Fisher, an Oklahoma hydrogeologist who analyzed the site for the residents’ legal case. His analysis showed a plume of contamination — oilfield brine mixed with coal ash — tainting an on-site well, a neighbor’s well and two nearby creeks.
Fisher also sampled the dust in about a dozen Bokoshe homes abutting the pit and found coal ash particles in it. The ash samples contained elevated levels of the carcinogens hexavalent chromium and arsenic, much like those collected at the Making Money pit.
In 2009, inspectors for the state, which has primary oversight of the Making Money pit, witnessed coal ash “being blown into the air,” records show. They issued a notice of violation, alleging the operator had failed to fulfill multiple requirements, including taking “reasonable precautions” to keep dust from moving off site. Federal inspectors then detected “unauthorized” saline discharges in the two creeks near the pit, resulting in two administrative orders — one in 2009, the other the following year. The EPA accused the pit operator of leaking pollutants into “waters of the United States” and demanded it “immediately cease and desist,” which forced it to stop accepting oil and gas wastewater. The state issued its own order against the pit, banning the mixing of this wastewater with coal ash — but not the ash itself.
That same year, Bokoshe’s battle with coal ash became known at EPA headquarters. While chronicling cases of coal-ash contamination, employees of the agency’s solid-waste office contacted Susan Holmes, of the citizens’ group Bokoshe Environmental Cause, who offered testimonials and photographs detailing the ash dumping at the pit.
“Your letter, and certainly many of the photos, illustrate how a waste unit can be state-permitted as a landfill while it is actually a surface impoundment,” an EPA employee told Holmes in an email dated April 2009, likening the pit to an ash pond — the kind of wet and unlined disposal site later targeted by the agency regulation.
Heavy lobbying by industry
In the meantime, coal ash regulation had become an explosive subject in Washington. By October 2009, the EPA had forwarded a draft rule to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review. Under this draft, the agency essentially would have classified coal ash as “hazardous,” a distinction triggering a series of strict controls for its dumping. The EPA also proposed a crack-down on the use of recycled coal ash as structural fill for quarries, sand and gravel pits, and “large-scale” landscaping operations. It would have treated these fill applications as forms of disposal, not beneficial use, and regulated them like ash ponds or landfills.
The proposal set off a frenzy of lobbying by the utility industry, which has long opposed a “hazardous” label for coal ash. Records show utility companies, ash recyclers and trade organizations, such as the American Coal Ash Association and the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group launched an aggressive campaign throughout the OMB review. In 2009 and 2010, OMB analysts held more meetings on this environmental rule than any other in the office’s published history, 47 in all. Of those, 34 involved industry representatives. Environmental advocates and representatives of the public — including Bokoshe residents, like Holmes, who visited Washington twice to push for tighter coal ash controls — attended 13.
“It was such a blatant example of one-sidedness,” says Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has written extensively about the rulemaking.
Industry representatives reiterated longstanding claims about the costs of stringent environmental regulation — lost jobs, higher electricity bills. And they played down the hazards of coal ash. But as evidence of the ash’s threats mounted, the argument against federal regulation shifted. Records show utilities and ash recyclers asserting one dominant rationale for rejecting the EPA proposal: A hazardous designation would create a “stigma effect” on beneficial use, crippling the ash-recycling market. For ash recyclers, says the coal ash association’s Adams, the mere prospect of such a label could reap unintended consequences, such as dropped insurance coverage or building-code approvals.
In the end, the industry campaign had a clear effect: Post-OMB review, in June 2010, the EPA published a proposed rule featuring a weaker, less-costly alternative to its initial draft. It opted to designate coal ash “non-hazardous” and subject it to less-stringent federal requirements. OMB economists re-wrote the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis and added the hypothetical stigma effect, which they estimated would result in $233.5 billion in lost benefits. The costs, calculated over a 15-year period, dwarfed any anticipated benefits from regulation, says Maryland’s Steinzor, who has compared the EPA proposal to the OMB-edited version.
For several years afterward, the utility industry continued to flex its muscles in the regulatory process, inundating the EPA with comments, analyses, legal opinions and technical documents. The proposal remained stuck in the bureaucracy through all of 2011, 2012 and 2013. The EPA’s rulemaking “has been tied up in knots over beneficial use,” says Lisa Evans, of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which, on behalf of 10 advocacy groups, sued the agency in 2012 over its stalled process and, two years later, won a court order forcing it to act.
By the time the EPA issued its final rule in 2014 — five years after its initial regulatory proposal — the agency had backed down. Instead of a rule treating coal ash as hazardous, the EPA issued minimum national standards that amounted to guidelines for states — guidelines that call for treating the disposal of coal ash as if it were household trash. The EPA retreated on another front as well: beneficial use.
The rule still puts limits on fill operations like sand and gravel pits. But it exempts other fill sites involving up to 12,400 tons of coal ash — enough to stack a football field six feet high — if they meet the criteria for beneficial use. To exceed this cap, operators must show the ash will not harm the environment.
The beneficial-use provision is ambiguous. It does not specify how a company should demonstrate the ash’s safety, for example. Even industry representatives acknowledge that it seems broad enough to allow for controversial applications, such as filling up silt and clay mines.
Still, they say, industry guidelines call for protective measures such as liners and water monitoring at these sites. “I see little real damage cases from large structural fills,” says James Roewer, of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, which is among a dozen industry groups that sued in July 2015, challenging various provisions of the EPA’s coal ash rule in court, including the tonnage limit for beneficial use. Since the EPA drafted its coal ash proposal in 2009, the solid-waste group has spent $1.2 million lobbying on either the agency rule or congressional measures that would have gutted it, disclosure reports show.
The EPA declined interview requests from the Center, citing the pending litigation. In answer to written questions, the agency attributed its reversal on coal-ash recycling to “EPA agree[ing] with commenters that, if constructed correctly, large scale fill operations can meet all of the criteria for beneficial use.” The agency defends its coal ash rule as an effort to “distinguish between beneficial use and disposal.”
Back in Oklahoma, regulators do not seem as concerned with such distinctions. The state Department of Mines oversees the “coal-combustion byproducts” program authorizing the disposal of coal ash as reclamation fill for mine pits. The department’s director, Mary Ann Pritchard, did not respond to the Center’s interview requests; program officials declined to comment.
Privately, department employees defend minefilling as a beneficial use, which they say helps restore thousands of acres scarred by strip mining. Minefills look like mounds of coal ash temporarily but, they insist, end up covered with soil and grass. Oklahoma regulators have touted minefills now used as grazing lands. Some have written papers and given presentations extolling the state’s minefill regulations — at times, highlighting the Making Money pit in Bokoshe. Still, officials acknowledge the practice is driven by the utility industry’s need to get rid of its ash.
“It was an afterthought to use these pits for coal ash disposal,” one says.
State regulators say their oversight of the Making Money pit has been rigorous. Inspectors from the mining department — as well as the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates air emissions — have visited the site, examined citizen complaints and monitored the company’s required reports, they say. Together the agencies have issued eight notices of violation against the pit, culminating in the 2009 enforcement actions over oil and gas wastewater and fugitive dust.
In 2010, regulators negotiated a consent order with the pit operator over the dust violation, requiring a plan to contain the ash, and monitoring its compliance. In 2012, they closed the case. Now, regulators say, the company has a more contained facility, replete with water sprayers and other equipment to wet the ash.
“We consider them in compliance,” says Sarah Penn, the environmental department’s deputy general counsel. While inspectors have since responded to complaints about the ash clouds — and issued a warning letter in 2014 over “visible fugitive dust” — Penn says the agency has yet to “see something we believe is a violation.”
Of the powdery ash, she says, “It looks worse than it is.”
To residents, the regulatory response has been feeble. Records show citizens logging complaints about the ash clouds for 11 years before environmental officials finally forced the pit operator to adopt a dust-suppression plan. Much of that plan reflects what the company promised years earlier — not just to neighbors but to state regulators, who, in 1999, issued their first violation notice over the dust. The state has dismissed most alleged violations and has never imposed a fine. Even the EPA’s orders, while stopping the use of oil and gas wastewater at the pit, have yet to yield any clean-up of ash-brine contamination in the creeks.
“People don’t want to do their jobs,” Tanksley says of the enforcement efforts. He remembers one state inspector assuring residents they would never see “with the naked eye” coal ash leaving the pit. Another attributed a billowy plume to a burning brush pile.
Environmental advocates have long argued that federal standards for minefilling could help plug state regulatory shortfalls. But the Interior Department’s mining office, which declared minefilling an “acceptable practice” in 1996, dismissed the need to do anything for years — until the 2006 National Academy of Sciences report. The report recommended that the mining office work with the EPA to develop “enforceable federal standards” that would create a regulatory floor for minefilling. In response in 2007, Interior officials published an advance notice of a proposed rulemaking, suggesting minimal changes. Nine years later, they have yet to unveil a draft plan.
Now that the EPA has issued its coal ash rule — and exempted minefilling — Interior is facing renewed pressure to develop its regulation. Evans, the Earthjustice attorney, explains that she filed the 2015 petition for a federal rulemaking on behalf of her group and 13 others after “plead[ing] with the office for years.” Under the federal mining law, Interior officials must respond to a formal rulemaking request or face possible legal action.
“We’re afraid minefilling will increase,” Evans says, echoing the fear among many advocates that utilities will turn to the unregulated practice as a way to get around the EPA’s coal ash rule.
Industry representatives counter that filling up coal mines with coal ash does not yield the same profit margin as other beneficial uses. Companies rely on minefilling more for the environmental benefits, they say, such as restoring old mines. Some states justify ash disposal in underground mines to combat another pollution problem: acid mine drainage. Coal ash, being alkaline, can help neutralize this acidic waste, the theory goes.
“I’d call that a benefit,” says Roewer, of the solid-waste group, which opposes tight controls on minefills. In recent years, he says, members of his lobby group and others have met with mining officials at Interior, urging them to allow the practice to continue as a beneficial use.
The mining office declined to comment, except to confirm that it intends to publish a proposed rule this year. In March, its director, Joseph Pizarchik, sent Evans a letter denying the Earthjustice petition as “moot” because the office “has already determined that a [minefill] rulemaking … is warranted.”
The jockeying for position in Washington seems worlds away to people in Bokoshe, including Tim and Sharon Tanksley and Susan Holmes. Their citizens group has relied on standard strategies to call attention to their plight — lobbying politicians, dogging regulators — as well as unorthodox ones. They have chased down ash trucks, scooped up ash samples, and staked out the pit at night. Once, they erected a billboard on the outskirts of town that announced: “WELCOME TO BOKOSHE, THE [COAL] ASH CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.”
In 2011, the Tanksleys, Holmes and three other residents sued AES, the pit operator and a dozen coal-ash haulers in Oklahoma district court, accusing the companies of “abnormally dangerous transport and disposal activities … pollution and contamination,” among other claims. Filed as a class action, the lawsuit sought remedy for those living within a three-mile radius of the Making Money pit — approximately 1,500 people — for “contamination of the environment in which they live, work and recreate and … the real and immediate threat of injuries.”
Viewed by Holmes as a “last-ditch effort” to shutter and clean up the pit, the lawsuit proceeded for a year before being removed to federal court, where it stalled and ultimately was dismissed. The residents’ attorneys argued the case belonged in state court, and filed multiple motions in federal court to move it back. Because of rulings there and in an appellate court that found the residents did not meet technical requirements enabling them to try the case in state court as a class, they are now left to pursue individual claims.
For many, the sense of powerlessness runs deep.
“Nobody cares,” Holmes says, alluding to state and federal regulators. “Everybody says, ‘It’s not up to us.’ It’s never anybody’s fault, and it’s always somebody else’s problem.”
Today, people in Bokoshe seem resigned to the dust in the air — and the destruction on the ground. Some have fled the town. Others have grown sick. In 2009, residents did an informal survey of the households located within a mile-and-a-half radius of the Making Money pit. Of 20 homes, 14 families had a relative who developed — and, in some instances, died of — cancer. A new survey is under way; organizers hope it will goad state health authorities to conduct an epidemiological study. An official with the Oklahoma State Department of Health says the state’s Central Cancer Registry plans to begin a preliminary study of cancer rates in Bokoshe this summer and should report its findings in the fall.
It all sounds familiar to Kristina Zierold, an epidemiologist at the University of Louisville who has researched the effects of coal ash on human health. In 2012, she explored the prevalence of disease in communities abutting ash dumps in that city. Residents had long complained that the billowing dust was making them sick, she says, “but there wasn’t any data.” In a year-long pilot study, she compared medical diagnoses and symptoms of 231 adults and children in what she calls “exposed” neighborhoods to 170 of their “non-exposed” counterparts, revealing a significant disparity. Of the two groups, the first had higher rates of illnesses, such as asthma, emphysema and cancer.
“We can definitely say that there’s this statistical difference,” says Zierold, who is now studying neurobehavioral symptoms among children exposed to the ash. Backed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, this five-year study is the only federally funded research exploring a possible link between coal ash and poor health. The study is in its earliest stages, but based on her work so far, Zierold says this much is clear: “Coal ash does play a role in people’s health.”
In the past 11 years, Holmes has lost her sister and mother to cancer — lung and pancreatic, respectively — which she believes was tied to the coal ash. Her family lived along the pit’s haul route and breathed in the dust daily. Now living in her mother’s old house, Holmes says she promised her family she would stay until the dump closed. But her health is worsening. Her childhood asthma has returned, requiring an inhaler, a nebulizer, oxygen, and two medications. Recently, she was diagnosed with heart disease.
“We’re just a little Podunk town in the backwaters of nowhere,” Holmes says, explaining why so many residents believe the coal ash dumping has been allowed to continue. “We are considered throwaway people.”
This story originally reported that a pilot study conducted by University of Louisville epidemiologist Kristina Zierold found higher rates of cancer among those residents exposed to coal ash than a control group. The pilot was a "mixed methods" study, using both quantitative and qualitative data. While Zierold found an increase in cancer reported anecdotally by exposed residents, this increase did not show up as a statistical difference.
Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma contributed to this story
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity is sending reporters to the national political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia to exclusively focus on special-interest influence, lobbying, partying, big-money politicking and corporate schmoozing — our specialties.
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There is a British saying that yesterday’s newspapers are today’s fish and chips wrapping, but yesterday’s news has now become a new form of journalism: Slow News. Its aim is to revisit stories after the dust has settled; analyse and evaluate the facts in a non-partisan way; and tell people how the story ended and help them understand it. And it does so in a traditional format with an up-to-date look.
Five years ago a British journalist, Rob Orchard, co-founded the print magazine Delayed Gratification. It’s the world’s first Slow Journalism magazine, printed every quarter to look back at events of the previous three months. The latest edition, for example, includes articles about the attacks in Cologne, and the Zika virus outbreak in Venezuela. It is the opposite of most of today’s news coverage, which aims to reach the reader or viewer as quickly as possible. Breaking news from all over the world is available twenty four hours a day, as a live stream of information. Not all of it is accurate, nor is most of it put into context to help people understand its implications.
Making a virtue of slowness and accuracy
In contrast, Delayed Gratification has made slowness a virtue. The selling point of the magazine lies in being not the first, but the last, reporter on the scene, telling the story with the benefit of hindsight. When the cameras are dismantled, the reporters pulled off and a topic has disappeared from the news agenda, the work of Rob Orchard and his team begins.
Speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, earlier this year, Orchard explained: “We wanted to slow down and find the value of a story. The rest of reporting tells us what happened, but not what that means.” The magazine is interested not so much in the event itself but the background and consequences. It has the advantages of time for deep research and for allowing interviewees a chance to reflect. “People do not know what they are saying in emotional situations.”
Orchard admits the magazine’s first three years were a struggle, and it was difficult to enter the market. For three years he paid himself no salary, supporting himself with another job. He even sold some of his wedding presents to finance the magazine, which does not take advertising. Since 2014, the investment has paid off. The magazine broke even and can now invest in bigger and better stories, picking up on some that the rest of the media missed. It already has 7,000 subscribers, thirty percent of them from outside the UK. Its artwork and infographics are modern and stylish. “Niche is possible,” he says.
It is important to convince readers that good journalism costs
Whilst idealism has paid off for his own print project, Orchard acknowledges that the days of print journalism are numbered. People expect news for free, and making them pay is difficult. “But you have to convince people that good journalism costs,” he says. In one sense it is educating the reader, as Peter Laufer, Journalism Professor from the University of Oregon agrees. Speaking on the same panel at Perugia, Laufer said the media has a duty to make the whole picture clear. Moreover, coverage is unbalanced: “Five thousand journalists covered the funeral of Michael Jackson, and this could have been done by a few,” he claims, “while the others go to the rest of the world.”
Slow Journalism has already spread to Germany. The Munich-based Piqd.de is a platform launched last year and funded by the August Schwingenstein Foundation. The start-up’s founder, Frederik Fischer, told the conference that help was needed to find a way through the news jungle. “If you want to go to the cinema, you read the reviews beforehand,” he said. His platform lists articles worth reading and also explains why they are worthwhile.
Piqd.de does not evaluate articles by using the algorithms method of social networks; it has almost a hundred experts, including journalists, politicians and scientists. Each of them writes about three reviews per week. It draws attention to stories in the mainstream media but just over half of its ratings refer to independent media. “Here we find highly motivated, talented reporters, but all struggle to develop their brand,” Fischer says. He hopes that one day there will be a ‘seal of endorsement’ for good journalism, just as there is for organic products, Fairtrade and green energy. This does not mean ruling out social media such as Facebook despite their contribution to ever faster (though often inaccurate) journalism. Fischer advises they “should be used superficially to draw attention to your project and bring people from Facebook to your own website.”
A slow magazine or a fast history book?
Delayed Gratification has links to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube on its website to ask for suggestions, show off its graphics, and allow previews. But Rob Orchard has tried to avoid social media to build readership. Instead of click baits, he opts for free events for his subscribers; a kind of socialising. “It is important to convince people of your idea, and to build them around the project,” he says. “This is a passion project started by a small group of people… You can look on it as either a slow magazine or a fast history book.”
Isn’t the best journalism always immersive? Whether it’s Walter Kronkite’s journalistic take on history “You are There” from the 1950s or Declan Walsh’s mobile phone reporting from Syria in June, the best journalism makes you feel like you are part of the story. You care what happens.
Virtual Reality is a powerful tool in making journalism more immersive to its readers and increasingly it’s becoming an essential part of the journalist’s toolkit. There are great examples of reporters using VR, such as the work of VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña, The Guardian’s 6×9 exploration of solitary confinement, or the Berliner Morgenpost’s exploration of life as a refugee.
Data journalism has been slower to the party, not least because it presents unique challenges. But journalists and developers have begun to experiment. The Wall Street Journal’s Roger Kenny and Ana Asnes Becker’s Is the Nasdaq in another bubble? is a rollercoaster ride along the country’s economic history, using VR to tell the story. It’s a terrific piece of work and was shortlisted for the 2016 data journalism awards.The best journalism makes you feel like you are part of the story. You care what happens.
Besides Kenny and Becker’s work, to my knowledge no other major news outlet has yet produced a VR dataviz (let me know if I’ve missed one that you know of).
So when we made an interactive guide to the UK’s EU referendum, it seemed like an important opportunity to try out producing our own 360-degree data visualization. The United Kingdom voting on whether to stay in the European Union or to “Brexit” is a huge story across Europe, and we wanted a visualization which would simply illustrate the top questions being asked in each country on search.
We worked with Wes Grubbs and the team at Pitch Interactive to build the original interactive and coder Michael Chang to turn that into an immersive VR experience. It was an experiment: what would happen if we turned a straightforward data visualization into a VR experience? Is that even possible — and would anyone be able to understand it?
And this is the result. It’s also accessible via the ‘cardboard’ option at the bottom of the screen. By moving your head and looking around the visual, you can explore the top question being asked in each country.
I have a bit of experience of working with designers to create an immersive data experience. But this is different, instead of a large infinity cube we had the more infinite space of the world inside a smartphone screen.Virtual Reality (VR) is at an exciting stage where it could help take journalism in an entirely new direction.
Data journalism and advances in accessible technology go hand in hand: the reason that any data journalist can make a map now is that there are a load of easy to use map making tools available, for instance. VR isn’t in that world yet, with the onus on developers to push the technology to get it to do what they want. There are a few places to help you through this so far, including this comprehensive guide from the Google VR team to creating visuals for Cardboard here. It includes pretty much every detail you need to make sure the visuals work well in a 360-degree environment. There’s also this piece by Kenny, which offers a guide for developers wanting to create 360-degree dataviz.What We Learned
VR brings its own challenges. Here is what we noticed in particular:
- There’s no room for lots of text, so you’re trying to do something simpler in a more complicated environment. The visual actually includes less data than the original. In fact, the more text you have, the more likely it is that you will make your viewers sick. And not making people feel sick is a key obsession of developers working with VR: you’re putting users in an alternate reality and if that reality doesn’t behave in predictable ways, then it can make people want to vomit, literally. It’s the equivalent of motion sickness.
- The viewer no longer needs to “click” or “tap” to demonstrate intent. But it also raised the question: how long should the viewer have to look at something to “activate” it? Also, our early prototype was giving us headaches (literally) until we realized that our virtual “eyes” were too far apart in the virtual world — as though the left eye were 10’ away from the right eye.
- It’s all about location. Movement in the virtual world can be disorienting, so we found it more effective to spread the information around the viewer. The Pitch team sketched Inception-like ways of bending maps, exploring laying out information in space as one would on a print page. Secondary “sidebar” information could be the area behind you, for example.
- Looking down is much more comfortable than looking up. So, look down in this and you see the European flag, to help ground the viewer (and provide a nice visual trick).
- Instructions can be helpful. Pitch’s Adam Florin describes the technology as “still a bit of a moving target, especially on mobile”. An incoming call produces a pretty disorienting experience, for example. This is such a new area, we felt it needed instructions. A screen tells you what to do and there are pointers to help you look in the right direction.
In visualization terms, this is a pretty “quick and dirty” project. Ideally you’d have months to put this together. But the Brexit vote is this Thursday, so we wanted to see if it was possible. Is this going to be how all data is visualized in a year’s time? Probably not. But 360-degrees reporting is increasingly a big consideration in all content produced by anyone.
VR is at an exciting stage where it could help take journalism in an entirely new direction. For the News Lab data team, it was something we wanted to try to help provide journalists with another tool in the data toolkit. Helping readers and users feel like, in Cronkite’s words, “You Are There” is what journalism is all about.
This story originally appeared on Simon Roger's website and is reprinted under a Creative Commons license. You can hear more about using VR in data journalism in this interview with Partially Derivative.
Simon Rogers is the data editor at Google’s News Lab. He is is the author of "Facts are Sacred," from Faber & Faber, and a new range of infographics for children books from Candlewick. He previously worked for The Guardian where he launched and edited the Guardian datablog.
On a late June morning in a hotel in central Athens, the award-winning journalist Yavuz Baydar is discussing the erosion of press freedom in Turkey. “The Panama Papers were completely ignored,” he shrugs. In the audience, there are many journalists, not only from Istanbul and Athens, but also Beirut, Cairo, Tehran, Amman and Kuwait – as well as London, Berlin, Rome and Copenhagen.
It is the inaugural Aegean Summit, a new conference aiming to bring together “progressive media professionals” from the Mediterranean, Middle East and the North African region, and to create an annual meeting point for cross-border collaboration.
The Greek capital offers a convenient, strategic location for such a gathering, explains Spyros Ladeas, Aegean Summit Director, in an interview with EJO. Most of the speakers here “don’t necessarily represent big publications but instead work from grassroots communities and have unique perspectives,” says Ladeas. In the course of the two-day event they shared their expertise:
Iranian filmmaker Gelareh Kiazand, a VICE News correspondent, spoke about the careful balance that needs to be applied when telling stories through fiction and documentaries without influencing authenticity. She spoke of the need for journalists “to be true to the environment they tell the stories about.”
A session on sustainable business models featured Maha ElNabawi, co-founder of the Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr. ElNabawi spoke about the efforts to create and develop a brand and build a close relationship with the publication’s audience, while Teun Gautier, De Coöperatie publisher, presented the Dutch publication’s independent approach.
Tassos Morfis, Athens Live Editor-in-Chief , who crowd-sourced €23,000 in May, told Aegean Summit that his outlet wants to avoid being dependent on advertising agencies. “So far this is working great,” he confirmed.
Chris Elliott, former Guardian Readers’ Editor and Ethical Journalism Network member, chaired a panel on the challenges that the migration crisis poses for journalists, where Preethi Nallu of Beirut’s Refugees Deeply spoke of the merits of collaborative over competitive approaches.
A talk on media collaboration featured Hamoud Almahmoud of Amman’s Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), and Sotiris Sideris of Athens Live – both good examples of outlets creating synergies across different platforms and in different ways with ARIJ providing training and Athens Live producing local content to distribute abroad.
Other speakers included Marta Ottaviani, La Stampa Turkey and Greece correspondent, Ayman Mhanna, Director of the Brussels-based Global Forum for Media Development, Michael Irving Jensen, Head of Middle East and North Africa at International Media Support and Laura Silvia Battaglia of Frontline Freelance Register.
What does the future hold for Aegean Summit?
“Definitely an Aegean Summit 2017,” smiles Spyros Ladeas. For this first instalment, the event has been self-financed with no external support from sponsors, institutes or other organisations. However, for next year the organisers are looking for partners and potential revenue sources.
Ladeas wants the summit to become an ecosystem for cross-border ideas – an ongoing forum between Europe and the Middle East. “My personal driver is to reach out to different regions and find similar people in this kaleidoscope of perspectives,” he explains.
In the coming months, he is planning to travel to Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon to research and find some more unique media outlets and stories. He thinks one shouldn’t criticise big organisations, or big media that are maybe not fulfilling the summit’s vision. “It’s better to try and do something rather than hoping that someone else will do it,” he concludes.
Pic credit: Aegean Summit 2016, c.Vas Panagiotopoulos
The post Aegean Summit: Cross-Border Ideas In Europe And The Middle East appeared first on European Journalism Observatory - EJO.
Snapchat’s new Memories feature is being pitched as a way to share old snaps and stories — but the real change is what it means for those creating and reporting stories in the tool. Now for the first time Snapchat users can create non-chronological sequences and stories using images or video that they have not taken themselves.
One of the biggest challenge of Snapchat Stories was that there was no opportunity for editing sequence: each snap (an image or video which forms part of a story) had to be added in order, and you could not change that order.
In my ebook Snapchat for Journalists I talked a lot about the importance of planning in order to address this limitation: if you missed a shot, you couldn’t insert it into the sequence later (I’ve updated it today to reflect the new feature).
Indeed, often users would try to get around this limitation by taking a photo of a photo, or a video of a video: this could look pretty crummy to say the least.How to use Snapchat Memories
You access Memories by swiping up from the camera screen (there’s also a small circle below the main ‘take photo/video’ circle which you can tap. If you can’t see this it may be that your app hasn’t updated with the new feature yet).
The first time you do this you will be asked to opt in to the feature. Then it will ask if you want to import existing snaps. That really doesn’t matter: the real use is not existing snaps but the ability to access your camera roll.
Once in Memories the camera roll can be accessed by tapping in the upper right corner (see image at the top of this post). Now you can add images or video to your story which were taken before the snaps that preceded it.Non chronological sequences in Snapchat
Before Memories, when you took a snap for a story in Snapchat you could choose to save it to your camera roll (to share on social media for example).
Now, however, if you’ve opted in to Memories the “save to” option saves instead to the app itself. You can no longer save to camera roll. Saving to the camera roll is still possible (see comments) but no longer quite as straightforward.
Now that Memories allows you to access your camera roll it’s a good idea to take each snap with your normal camera before you add it to the story. Here’s an example why:
Traditionally in Snapchat you would take snap 1, add it to your story, then take snap 2, add it to your story, then take snap 3 and add that to your story. The resulting story sequence is 1-2-3.
But if you take all three snaps with your normal camera, then you have the option to change the story order by accessing those from Memories.Images and video by other contributors
Because Memories means you no longer have to create video or images from within the app itself, it also means you can use video or images made by other people. If someone sends you an image or video and you save it to your mobile phone, it joins your camera roll too.
Potentially, then, you could create a story which includes footage from people in other locations at an event, for example.
You could create a multi-stranded story from the point of view of two (or more) reporters, cutting between them.
You can ask witnesses and experts to send you their own snaps to be included in your story. This was a functionality previously only available to Snapchat itself and shown in Snapchat Live (see this previous post about how Snapchat Live reported the Old Trafford bomb scare).
You could create a story with ‘archive footage‘ (Snapchat is based on vertical video, so horizontal footage might look odd, but users are happy to rotate their phones if they can understand the justification). Quartz’s Jennifer Chang, for example, talks about the possibility of reporters revisiting a scene and using footage from a previous report in their story.
You could even create a multi-shot interview, if two of you are filming the same interview from different angles.
Taylor Lorenz, director of emerging platforms at The Hill, says they may use the new functionality to publish highlights from an event which they have covered live, after it has happened:
“In this sense, it should extend the shelf life of our coverage.”
He also mentions the possibility for aggregation of content on the platform, and suggests that content may begin to look “more branded and produced”, similar to Snapchat Discover.
You may be able to think of others.
In short, for journalists the Memories feature is nothing to do with the past, but more about a future Snapchat which is much more flexible in allowing us to report stories in an engaging way.UPDATE: Longer video and other thoughts
Since publishing this post I’ve noticed some other changes as a result of Memories. The most significant is that you can now add video longer than 10 seconds to Snapchat.
When you use Memories to choose a video from your camera roll to add to a story, and that video is longer than 10 seconds, it will split that video into multiple video snaps and run those together in your story, with the same effect as one long video clip.
The key difference with those and any other snaps added to a story through Memories, however, is quality: video added through the feature (whether filmed on your mobile camera app, or within Snapchat) has a grainier feel than video filmed directly within the app and added directly to a story at that time. Snaps added through Memories also have a white border and timestamp, although that may be less of an issue.
Another bug is that snaps added to a story less than 24 hours after they were filmed are still added in chronological order. That means they are not added to the end of a story but rather inserted before any snaps taken after it.
Saving stories now also appears to be much harder: Ruby Casablanca in the comments points out that “Any sound that you have removed on your snap chat story, is included when you save it to your camera roll. Annoying if you want to preserve the snapstory the way you created it.”
Filed under: online journalism Tagged: Memories, narrative, SnapChat