Raking Muck on the Cape

On a cold Cape Cod Saturday night, as she was about to alert the Associated Press office in Boston to what was to become the most important single series in the history of her newspaper, Alicia Blaisdell-Bannon, veteran news editor of the Cape Cod Times wondered to herself, “I hope we got all this right.” The Times, circulation 50,000, had never before attempted to tell a story of this scope – two veteran reporters and a photographer had been assigned full time to cover it for five months.

About the same time Blaisdell-Bannon was making the call, her boss, Managing Editor Cliff Schechtman, worried that sound-bite summaries of the six-part investigative series the paper was about to run might sensationalize what his staff had painstakingly documented – the ineffective and wasteful efforts to control underground pollution spreading inexorably into the Upper Cape’s diminishing fresh water sources from the huge Massachusetts Military Reservation. “I didn’t want to be known as the editor that killed tourism on Cape Cod,” Schechtman recalls, “but that never happened.”

What did happen as a result of the series “Broken Trust,” which ran from Jan. 5 to 10, 1997, were some timely turnarounds by government regulators and a remarkable transformation of public and political attitudes on the Cape, on Beacon Hill, and in Washington.

The series now stands as a sterling example of what a committed community newspaper can do to affect public policy when it commits the editorial and graphic resources to tackle a complicated issue, put it in context, unflinchingly assess responsibility, and use simple but tough language to explain the problem and describe solutions. Though criticized by a few snipers as anti-military and for having unfairly lumped most politicians and bureaucrats into the same mud pit, “Broken Trust” not only shook up government bureaucracies – it galvanized its readers.

The 22,000-acre Massachusetts Military Reservation, bordered by the Upper Cape communities of Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, and Sandwich is now home to an Air Force fighter wing, a Coast Guard base, a radar tracking station, an Army National Guard training facility, and a national military cemetery. Built in 1935 by the WPA, the former sheep ranch, which encompasses 10 percent of the entire Cape, has been used to train invasion forces and gunners, incarcerate POWs and even hide atomic-tipped missiles in concrete bunkers.

But what history will best remember the MMR for is a legacy of underground pollution from jet fuel, explosives, and other substances – some thought to be cancer causing – which are contaminating the Upper Cape’s groundwater. Every day, even now, as many as eight million gallons a day of fresh water in aquifers under the Cape’s sandy soil are being polluted as the toxic plumes flow to the sea, leaving behind contaminated drinking wells, ponds, cranberry bogs, and marshes.

“In what our grandchildren will judge the crime of the century on Cape Cod,” the Cape Cod Times series began, “poisons from our past are robbing us of our future. And those people charged with protecting us – the military, politicians and government regulators – have been incapable of stopping the mushrooming environmental disaster.”

Far from the usual “on-the-one-hand-some-say-this-and-on-the-other-hand-some-say-that” that journalists often use to maintain an air of objectivity, Cape Cod Times reporters Bill Mills and Anne Brennan spiked the qualifiers and hammered home their points: Cleanup efforts were “wasteful” and “bungled by poor management,” regulators were “asleep,” and politicians were “focused on getting quick fixes.”

“We chose those words carefully,” says Schechtman, “but we had the facts.” To gather those facts Mills and Brennan traveled to polluted military bases in Utah and California to assess their environmental cleanups. They dove deep into the history of the MMR to learn how the armed services had disposed of their wastes, their munitions, their fuels, and lubricants. They asked hundreds of people thousands of questions and unearthed key facts never before published. They documented just how much harm the MMR’s pollution had done: Fully 66 billion gallons of water – enough to supply the Cape for seven-and-a-half years – had been contaminated. They found that of the $165 million in cleanup funding, only $25 million had actually been spent on cleaning up the pollution – the rest went to studies – and that the money that had gone for cleanups hadn’t made a difference. They found the MMR cleanup project had never been audited. They discovered piles of toxic soil open to the elements.

But more than any single fact, the Times series made clear that unless the MMR’s pollution was remediated and the military’s continued activities and expansion plans were controlled or stopped, the very future of the Cape as a habitable area was threatened because its sole source of fresh water, the aquifer, was in peril.

And perhaps the critical action point for policy-makers the series revealed was that the one potential source of unpolluted water – key to the Upper Cape’s growth and survival – was actually inside the boundaries of the MMR, in the so-called Impact Area – 15,000 acres containing mortar and artillery ranges where the military was proposing a major expansion of its activities. “Bombing your water supply is not the best way to save it,” the reporters quoted Mark Forest, an aide to local Congressman Gerry Studds and now to his successor, Bill Delahunt.

Following Sunday’s overview entitled “Operation: Failure,” came five more installments on successive days. Monday’s headline was “$165 Million Mismanagement,” Tuesday’s was “Who is Responsible,” with a huge graphic of finger-pointing bureaucrats and politicians. Wednesday examined “The Cancer Question,” with a look at whether there are links between elevated cancer rates on the Cape and the MMR pollution plumes. Thursday profiled the man in charge of the cleanup effort, who would be re-assigned shortly after the series ran, and Friday’s concluding segment asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Each day’s segment took up nearly the entire front page and four ad-free inside pages, an extraordinary financial commitment by a small paper. (The Times is owned by Ottaway Newspapers, a division of Dow-Jones that also owns the New Bedford Standard-Times.) Included were sidebars, explainers, color charts, diagrams, and historical maps tracing the spreading pollution plumes. In totality it was a stunning piece of work – both for its length and breadth as well as its unimpeachable factuality. Not one person or agency called to demand a correction or retraction.

“It was a blockbuster,” says six-term state Representative Eric Turkington of Falmouth. “More then anything, the Times connected a lot of dots for people,” he added. “By painting a big picture of what had gone wrong and who was responsible, it precipitated action that wouldn’t have happened without it.”

Susan Nickerson, head of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, who had worked on base cleanup issues for years, says she was “surprised and shocked” at what Mills and Brennan discovered. She credits the Times series for doing “a tremendous amount to energize the public.” Agrees Mark Forest: “It created a sense of urgency that had been lacking in many people, because it portrayed how serious the problem was and how little time we really had to address it.”

Weeks after the series ran the Times sponsored a forum on the MMR pollution problem at a local high school. Where earlier meetings on base issues had attracted a dozen or two participants, that night the school was packed with 200 people asking tough questions of officials who now found the time to be there – U. S. Senator John Kerry, then- state Secretary of Environmental Affairs Trudy Coxe, the EPA’s John DeVillars, newly elected Congressman Bill Delahunt, and activists like Joel Feigenbaum, who in years before had had to resort to civil disobedience just to be heard, let alone sit on a panel with decision-makers.

Of all the players, John DeVillars, the head of EPA’s Region One, was arguably most moved by the series. Quoted in Part One as saying, “shame on all of us for not seeing [the problems] sooner,” DeVillars now says he was “very disheartened and frustrated to learn from the series that EPA was more closely connected with the National Guard’s failure to clean up the problem than it was with protecting the people of the Cape. The series really put the cleanup on our radar screens.”

“What it did was embarrass EPA and put a tack in DeVillars’s butt,” remembers Feigenbaum, whose analyses of elevated cancer rates on Cape Cod have made headlines for years. “It showed that EPA wasn’t doing the oversight it should have been doing.”

Only days after the series ran, DeVillars met privately with Feigenbaum and other Cape activists who for years had been frustrated by both the federal and the state government’s passivity in monitoring the military’s cleanup efforts. They and the series had made it plain to DeVillars that the strategies of the past had failed. “We had neglected our responsibilities,” DeVillars recalls, “and the stories in the Times accelerated our commitment to finding another way.” Just a month later EPA found the leverage it was looking for – the military’s planned expansion into the Impact Area.

EPA’s Boston office began making it clear to the National Guard that the military needed to do something it had never dreamed of doing before – measuring the future environmental impacts of its activities, in this case on the Cape’s groundwater supplies – before its planned expansion could begin. In response to the military’s indifference to its suggestion, EPA, in April 1997, took the unprecedented step of ordering an end to the use of the Impact Area as a firing range, at least until a groundwater study had been conducted. The prohibition against firing artillery and mortar shells as well as lead bullets remains in effect today.

“It was the first time in American history that the EPA had told the military ‘lay your weapons down,'” remembers Times editor Schechtman. In the days that followed, DeVillars’ action – which was opposed by the military – was endorsed by both the Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation and the Republican administration of then – Governor William Weld.

Also energized by the series was newly elected 10th District Congressman Bill Delahunt, who proposed that the Impact Area be taken out of the military’s jurisdiction altogether and proclaimed a national wildlife refuge – an idea first proposed by a citizens group but enthusiastically endorsed by the former district attorney in one of his first policy statements. And, in the wake of the series, the MMR cleanup became one of the few major Superfund sites in the country to be fully funded.

Seth Rolbein, the author of two books on MMR pollution and now the editor of the weekly Upper Cape Codder, published by Fidelity’s Community Newspaper Company, gives the Times credit for changing the political landscape. “The series re-framed the issues for a lot of people and gave shape to the possibilities that later occurred. It was a tremendously important contribution to the public debate.”

Two groups that had always been thought to be pro-military also rethought their positions as a result of the series. In the past, the MMR’s economic contributions to the Upper Cape economy had the support of the regional Chamber of Commerce and the real estate industry. Now, instead of seeing the base as an economic engine, they viewed it as a threat to their way of life.

“We realized this was a life-or-death issue,” says John O’Brien, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “The stories showed us that the pollution of the aquifer was a threat to business, tourism, and real estate values. It helped us make the connection between our water supply and the commercial viability and economic future of the Cape. As a result, both the Chamber and the Cape & Islands Real Estate Board took a second look and realized that our real bread and butter was driven by the environment. That’s when we decided to support the idea of turning the Impact Area into a wildlife refuge.” O’Brien added, “That wouldn’t have happened without the series.”

“Broken Trust” also had its benefits for the Cape Cod Times. Circulation went up. The paper’s status was enhanced, its reporters’ calls were more quickly answered, doors were opened, access to decision-makers came easier. Regional and national recognition for the series followed, including awards from the Associated Press, the Scripps Howard Company, the New England Press Association, and Investigative Reporters and Editors. It was also a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize, given annually by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Mills and Brennan were invited to speak on national panels, their work held out as textbook examples of investigative journalism. The Times Web site is now said to be daily reading at the Pentagon. Even the quality of applicants hoping to be reporters has improved. But most of all the paper has proven itself to be no longer just an observer of scattershot events, but a key player in the history of the effort to preserve the viability of the Upper Cape.

“The Cape had to go from denial to remedy,” observes activist Joel Feigenbaum, “and the Times series did a tremendous amount to get many more people to realize that the way to deal with the pollution and cancer issues was not to ignore them but to take them on.”

Two-and-a-half years after the series, the MMR pollution story goes on. Debate on Delahunt’s proposal to create a wildlife refuge continues. The future role of the military on Cape Cod is more controversial than ever and activists demand more attention be paid to the under-reported activities of the private contractor hired by the Air Force to manage the cleanup.

The Times has moved on as well, to address other issues in depth – Attention Deficit Disorder and a local credit union conspiracy, to name two. Reporters Mills and Brennan no longer cover the MMR beat – Mills now writes the Times editorials, Brennan covers a variety of other matters, including uncovering the Cape Cod Railroad’s illegal practice of dumping raw sewage onto its tracks. But both remain proud of their work and their paper. The paper still covers the MMR’s pollution issues as it did before the series, on a day-by-day, development-by-development basis, but it hasn’t revisited the subject with anything like the comprehensiveness of “Broken Trust.”

Brennan chokes up recalling the gratitude of a cancer patient’s family for her stories concerning the possible carcinogenic effects of the base’s contamination and Mills says the experience “rejuvenated my professional life.” “Community newspapers – even those as small as we are, can do as good or better work than the biggest and best – and make a real difference,” adds Mills.

Their editor, Blaisdell-Bannon, thinks the series changed attitudes both outside and inside the paper. “The paper’s more aggressive now – both in our news coverage and our editorial voice,” she says. “That series told us that when we work hard and convince ourselves we know the truth, it’s O.K. to say, ‘This is what’s right and this is what’s wrong.’ ”

Meet the Author
(The series, which has been reprinted in its entirety, runs 32 pages long in two sections. Complete with illustrations and photos, it’s available for purchase from the Times and can also be found, with other multi-part investigations, on the paper’s Web site at www.capecodonline.com.)

“It wasn’t very sexy, just nuts-and-bolts reporting, layering fact upon fact and not stopping until we got the story,” says Cliff Schechtman, “but I’m very proud of what we did. I really believe that journalism is the blood that pumps democracy.”

Marty Sender, a former network and local news reporter and producer, is president of Sender Communications, a communications consulting firm with offices in Boston and Newton.