Shining a light on the muck
This is an excerpt of an article written by Patrick L. Kennedy for COMtalk, the alumni magazine of the College of Communication.
The water is still dirty. In 1979, scientists found industrial solvents in the municipal water supply in Woburn, the small Bay State city where the childhood leukemia rate was four times that of the national average. The contaminated wells were closed, but more than three decades later, chemicals remain, despite a cleanup effort costing taxpayers as well as polluters upwards of $21 million.
And Woburn, made famous in the book and film A Civil Action, is not alone. Across Massachusetts, 20 sites have sat on the federal Superfund list—meaning they may pose an imminent health risk—since the 1980s. With several of these being military facilities, the government itself may be on the hook for millions of dollars.
We now know all this, thanks to the digging of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) at Boston University. NECIR is the nation’s first university-based, nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom focused on local and regional issues. From a cramped office in the College of Communication basement, center co-directors Joe Bergantino and Maggie Mulvihill have led a team of students and freelancers in uncovering fraud, malfeasance and threats to the public health. Working for up to several months on each project, NECIR has sold stories to the Boston Globe, WCVB-TV, WBUR and, crucially, to many of the region’s midsize and small city daily newspapers, some of which don’t have the staff to do deep investigative reporting.
In the group’s three years in operation, NECIR reporters have completed 32 major investigations. They found that the utility giants were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill a legislative bill that would enable public competition. They unraveled a complicated inner-city mortgage scam that had put unsuspecting tenants out on the street. They discovered that underfunded state regulators had become so lax in their oversight of polluters that in one case, black snow fell on a Maine town.
Beyond simply shining a light on such abuses and failures, NECIR reports have spurred changes and won awards. After the center exposed contractors who failed to disclose workplace safety violations when bidding on stimulus-funded transportation projects, the Massachusetts attorney general levied fines on the companies, totaling more than $160,000. In her testimony during Beacon Hill budget hearings, the head of the Mass. chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness began by reciting two paragraphs of a NECIR report showing how cutbacks in mental health services were leading to a strain on EMT and police resources, the court system and jails.