Environmental reporting on the Ohio EPA is … frustrating

Two weeks ago, I turned in my first story for an environmental journalism and data course at Kent State. My partners, Cameron Hoover and Adam Kirasic, and myself covered hazardous waste in East Liverpool, Ohio, and contacted several sources from Heritage Thermal Services and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for the story. We all agreed the story was not our best effort because it lacked input from hazardous waste experts. Our emails and phone calls were either not returned at all or not in a timely fashion.

Here, I’ll discuss my efforts in contacting the Ohio EPA:

I first emailed Tammy Heffelfinger, the supervisor of hazardous waste compliance and inspection support for the Ohio EPA, who did not respond directly. Instead, James Lee, the media relations manager for the Ohio EPA, responded and asked that I send questions via email.

In journalism school, professors teach young reporters like myself not to provide specific questions to sources ahead of the interview — this gives them time to prepare manicured answers, and often times, the interview just doesn’t feel authentic. I did not send questions, but I did provide Lee with more details on the story so he could put me in contact with an employee knowledgeable on the subject.

After five days with no response from Lee via email and no response to a phone call, I called the Ohio EPA once again and got a hold of him. He agreed to find me a source to speak on the matter, but only if more details on the story were emailed to him. Lee got back to me three days later with an update: he was working to set up an interview for me after Columbus Day (Oct. 8), though he did not specify with who.

I sent a follow-up email, and Lee responded with a phone call, saying “I think the person who would probably be in the best position to talk with you on haz waste generally — and Heritage more specifically — that person isn’t going to be in the office. They have had a family emergency until Friday (Oct. 12) of this week or Monday (Oct. 15) of next week.”

The deadline for the story was Oct. 10. Reporters work hard to pull stories together, and their schedules usually revolve around the availability of their sources. Environmental reporting is new to me. The topic my group was working with was interesting, but I think our first taste — specifically, being ignored by sources — was a little bitter.

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