Five lessons from the Oregonian’s Iraq-hexavalent chromium investigation
For the past year and a half, Julie Sullivan at the Oregonian, one of the country's most consistent and skilled investigative reporters, has been writing about troops that were exposed to the cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium in Iraq. Unlike so many investigations, in which reporters disappear for months or years and then return from their digging with a package of stories, photos, short videos, maps and graphics, Sullivan started with a relatively short story in January 2009 titled simply Oregon troops exposed to toxic chemical in Iraq. Since then, the Oregonian has followed with more than 30 stories and editorials. Here is how Sullivan describes the scene where the exposure happened:
Dust coated the Oregon Army National Guardsmen's combat boots and caked their skin as they protected Halliburton KBR contractors restoring oil flow in Iraq in 2003. Dust poofed from the soldiers' uniforms as they crowded into vans at the end of the day and shared tents at night. When the dust blew onto Spc. Larry Roberta's ready-to-eat meal, he rinsed the chicken patty with his canteen water and ate it. Six months later, doctors discovered the flap into Roberta's stomach had disintegrated. Six years later, the Marine and former police officer can no longer walk to the mailbox or work.
Here are some of the lessons to be learned from this incredible project:
1. Focus. Iraq has been a big, messy story for decades. Sullivan chose wisely to always keep her reporting focused on the chemical, where it came from, where it went and who it has been hurting. She does such a good job describing it that you start to see it as a character in the story. She also has made it clear throughout that there may be multiple parties at fault, including Halliburton KBR and the U.S. Army.
2. Keep count. Sullivan started with "at least 48 soldiers" being exposed. Over the months, she has updated the number as she was able to build more of a paper trail and as her reporting sparked new inquiries. She also kept track of the counting. From the beginning, the Pentagon and the Oregon National Guard have had a tough time notifying all of the people who were potentially exposed, and that has been a big part of her reporting.
3. Act like the Fourth Estate. A small percentage of the country's reporters are based in Washington D.C., and those not based there often act as if nothing that happens there has any bearing on their local beats. Sullivan smartly both attended Congressional hearings about the toxic exposure and gathered key pieces of evidence from Congressional documents. "In June, Dr. Max Costa, chairman of the New York University Department of Environmental Medicine, told a Senate committee that exposure to just 40 micrograms of hexavalent chromium per cubic meter -- about the size of a grain of salt in about a cubic yard -- has shown a 50 percent increase in cancers."
4. Make a timeline. For a story like this, a timeline might even get down to seconds. Every move should be scrutinized and every mover questioned. "The Indiana Guard was not so lucky. When they arrived in late April 2003, their commander, Lt. Col. James Gentry, said in a sworn statement that "50 percent" of the plant was covered in yellow and orange sand that regularly coated the troops' boots and uniforms. Still, he didn't understand the hazard until KBR employees showed up in protective suits. "I didn't have any idea they were going to be in suits until we got in the vehicle with them," Gentry said in a recent deposition. "And then it's like, Why are we still doing this? They're in protective gear and we're not."" When did the KBR staff find out that they should be wearing protective gear? And why weren't soldiers told to do the same?
5. Go to the top brass. "This was the low point of the Army's care of reservists, no doubt about it. The strategy was driven by former Secretary of Defense (Donald) Rumsfeld and (Deputy Defense Secretary) Paul Wolfowitz, and the responsibility goes right back to them. They thought we were going into Panama and we'd all be home in a week." Who said that? President Obama? Al Franken? Ron Paul? No. Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell, commander of the Oregon State Defense Forces. It is one of many stunning assessments of the situation from people in positions of authority. Sullivan tells harrowing, personal stories, but she also tries as much as possible to find the key decision-makers and ask them tough questions. The only thing that would have made this quote better would have been a description of Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz slamming the phone down when they were asked about the general's comments.