CJR misses the point, HCM hits its stride, KTRH brings in the clowns
■BY GABRIELLE COSGRIFF-
Lee Hochberg wrote a piece in the
current issue of the Columbia
Journalism Review op the sorry
state of environmental reporting
in Houston's dailies. Two pieces, actually
—one on the local coverage of two particular situations, and one on vinyl chloride
emissions from abandoned chemical
Unfortunately, because there are woeful inadequacies in local environmental
reporting, any truth in the two pieces was
far outweighed by inaccuracies and distortions.
The first story dealt with the South
Texas Nuclear Project (STNP) and a nuclear waste site at Galveston. Andrew
Sansom (spelled Sanson throughout the
story) and David Crossley, who was
the editor of Houston City Magazine
(referred to by Hochberg as "a Houston
City editor") wrote a story last year on
STNP. When Houston City's publisher,
Francois de Menil, refused to print the
story, it was published in Breakthrough
and Galveston In Between(June 1979).
Hochberg correctly reported that out-
of-town publications were quicker to
cover these stories than Houston's dailies,
but he unfairly lumped Houston Post environmental writer Harold Scarlett with
Carlos Byars of the Houston Chronicle.
Byars is indeed a lightweight, and a
booster of the establishment, as evidenced by his remarks in the story: "... I
don't see any reason for environmental
reporting in Houston. For instance, we
cover the petrochemicals industry from
the business standpoint very well. . . "
Byars expressed a similar nonchalance
last summer, when Breakthrough asked
him why he'd done so little reporting on
STNP. "Some people think we ought to
be down there camped on their doorstep,
watching every weld. . . . that's not the
way this reporter works or this paper
works. The presence of Time-Life, News-
week etcetera does not impress me."
But Scarlett is in a different class.
He is recognized nationally and internationally for his enviromental reporting.
Without question, he dragged his feet on
STNP, but he admits the weaknesses inherent in his job. As he told Hochberg:
"Do I cover land use, or chemicals, or
nuclear power, or what on any given day?
I have to set priorities and sometimes I
make mistakes. I'm all alone at the Post.
I'm sorry there aren't ten of me." The
difference is that Scarlett cares about in-
vironmental reporting. Byars, by his own
The Texas Observer also got short
shrift from Hochberg. "In July," he
wrote, "the Observer ran a short article
on coverage of the STNP called 'Nuclear
Not true. Most of that issue, including
the cover story, was devoted to STNP.
The March 14, 1980, Observer had an
update on STNP, and almost every issue
has something on the environment. The
Observer, more than any publication in
Texas, gives a high priority to environmental reporting.
Hochberg's second piece (Official
sources—and a "no problem" dump) was
by far the more damaging and irresponsible. It concerned vinyl chloride emissions
from abandoned chemical waste pits 30
miles south of Houston. Hochberg had
written a story on the pits for In Between
Hochberg came across a Texas Air
Control Board (TACB) report that carcinogenic vinyl chloride was drifting from
the pits into an adjoining trailer camp.
The report concluded that "people in the
nearby residential areas are being exposed
to concentrations in excess of a recommended health standard."
TACB engineer Dick Rogers told
Breakthrough that the quote was taken
out of context by Hochberg.California
had recommended a standard of 10 parts
per billion(ppb),not because of proven
health hazards,but because that was as
low as they could monitor.There are no
federal or Texas guidelines for vinyl chloride emissions.The TACB devised a method of measuring less than 10ppb,but
experts could not come up with a safe
number.Two of nine readings at the pits
were in excess of10ppb(one:14,one:30).
"I presented my findings to TACB regional administrator Lloyd Stewart,"
wrote Hochberg. "The Air Control Board
had not informed the residents of the
danger, Stewart told me, because 'We
didn't want them to panic' "
Hochberg reported that Dr. Norman
Trieff, codirector of the division of environmental toxicology at the University
of Texas Medical School at Galveston,
called the board's response "unethical,
immoral, and maybe illegal." Trieff "verified" that some of the 600 trailer park
residents faced a "definite possibility" of
contracting liver cancer or glial brain
At this newspapery Gifford, we prefer to use exact quotes. Or, if we summarize what a person says, we
don't summarize it as 'Ya-da-da-da-dah'l" (C) New Yorker