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This Messenger Won't Be Killed

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Investigative reporting in Mecklenburg County isn't for the weak of heart. When I'm planning a big investigative story I've worked on for months, I begin preparing my family and friends for the fallout weeks in advance of its publication.

They're going to hear and read some awful things about me, I warn them. They always have a hard time understanding this. If I got the story right, why would city and county bureaucrats attack me? Because we live in the pretend-to-be-perfect county, and that's the way it works here, I explain to them. It's a culture in which investigative pieces of any real substance that challenge city or county government simply aren't done by most of the major media. We Charlotteans simply don't air our dirty laundry in public.

The punishment for a reporter who does so is usually in direct proportion not to the accuracy of the story, but to how much the story embarrasses the bureaucrats and/or elected officials involved in the controversy the story creates.

After the story hits, the onslaught begins. City, and lately county bureaucrats zip lengthy memos to elected officials they work for, claiming that the article is "rife with inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions." These memos are tricky. Usually what their authors will do is state facts or assumptions slightly different from those actually contained in the article, then refute them, as if to correct the reporter.

At first glance it would seem that this strategy wouldn't work, but it often does. Most elected officials rarely question anything city or county staff tell them. Many, not all, but many don't read all the material city and county staff give them. I doubt that most elected officials read the 10-page smear job county bureaucrats put out last week after the Creative Loafing story "It's a Crapshoot: What You Haven't Been Told About Charlotte's Sewage Spills" hit the street two weeks ago. Or rather, I doubt that they read past the part about the "inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions" the article supposedly contained. If they had, and if they'd read the article closely, they would have realized that something strange was going on. Many of the "facts and assumptions" the memos supposedly corrected weren't actually in the article.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the memo circulated to over a thousand city and county employees trashing our story was the following paragraph. It reads: "We are seeking a meeting with the editor of the publication to reveal the obvious lack of sound research and fact checking and request a full retraction of the many instances of incorrect information."

Not surprisingly, given the content of the memo that followed this line, no one involved has contacted the editor of this paper. After a week passed, we finally called County Manager Harry Jones to request a meeting with him. In fact, no one had the cojones to even send CL so much as a copy of the corrections. Instead, we had to get them from third parties who had received them from city and county staff.

But the bureaucrats know that that doesn't matter. They know it's easier for elected officials to brush the whole issue of raw sewage in this county's creeks and streams aside than it is for them to do the hard work of grasping an issue that won't win them any fame and acclaim. It would be easier for me to brush their response aside as well. Every time I've been the subject of one of these smear jobs, I've won a journalism award. I could just take their knocks, let my resume swell, and buy myself a one-way ticket out of here. But I'm not built that way, and neither is this paper. They can shoot all they want at this messenger, but she won't die.

But forget about them, and forget about me. The real issue is the 815 raw sewage spills by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) between 1999 and 2001 that no one seems to want to talk about. In the state of North Carolina, those who spill raw sewage into creeks and streams -- some of which ran through the parks, neighborhoods and backyards of Mecklenburg County -- are supposed to receive fines, especially if they do it over and over again. But not a single one of these spills, many of which were half-heartedly investigated by county environmental hygienists, were actually fined by the state, even when spills spewed from the same site over and over again or when hundreds of thousands, even millions of gallons ran through creeks and streams that wound through parks, residential areas or places where people, particularly children, could have easily come in contact with the fouled water. It's gross, it's dangerous, and it is completely unacceptable.

Yet these cases were closed again and again, even when water tests clearly revealed violations of the state's collection system enforcement guidelines. Take the Long Creek pump station for instance. Between 1997 and 1999, 14 spills totaling 1.1 million gallons of raw sewage spewed from the station area, yet no fine was levied by the state. Despite written warnings from county environmental hygienists that the force main and pumping station needed to be replaced, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has repeatedly failed at their promises to adequately address the situation and those who run the Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program (MCWQP) have failed to collect full and adequate enough data for the state to police them. The North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (NCDENR) in turn has failed to fine CMU even in cases where the county has provided adequate enough data to justify it. The joint effort of the two agencies has resulted in spill sagas like the one at the Long Creek Pump Station. It was no surprise, given the way the first 14 spills there were handled, that in June 2000, 3.7 million gallons of raw sewage spewed from the pump station into Long Creek and ultimately into Lake Wylie, where people swim. Nor is it any surprise that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities received no fine for that spill either, or for the 815 spills totaling 12 million gallons of raw sewage the utility spilled throughout the county.

These are the real facts. They are not disputable, which is why city and county bureaucrats didn't touch them in their silly memos. CL would be happy to sit down with any elected official confused about the situation and provide them with documentation to back up the claims made in the article. But rest assured that we will not back down on this issue. If we must baby-sit these agencies until they get it right, we will, and you will read about it again and again in the pages of this paper.

Now, who is going to do something about this? *

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