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Digging Deep For The Story
Centre Daily Times exposes environmental hazard caused by highway project

For Mike Joseph, it was a routine assignment: Put together a story looking at how a new interstate highway, still being built, was changing patterns of development in the Centre Daily Times’ coverage area.

Joseph, senior reporter for six years, checked in with the project manager and was told road builders had encountered some problems while constructing a bridge abutment.

Were there any other problems, he asked. No, he was told.

But when he called the project manager’s supervisor and asked about the bridge abutment, he heard a long pause.

Yeah, the man finally said. The bridge was an issue. But it was nothing, he said, compared with the “acid rock drainage” problem.

Joseph had stumbled onto a story that would consume him for the next two years – a massive environmental problem that would result in hearings before the state Legislature, delay construction of a $700 million highway and lead to a remediation project whose cost is now estimated to be more than $20 million.

In summer 2003, road crews inadvertently dug into a vein of iron pyrite while digging the roadbed for Interstate 99. The rock, when exposed to air and water, produces acid runoff that dissolves heavy metals. Geologists determined that this particular vein of pyrite is an unusually concentrated form rarely found in the eastern United States.

Joseph began interviewing workers on the road-building project, state transportation and environmental officials and local geologists. He read through environmental impact statements and digested reams of papers on test drillings.

Transportation and environmental officials seemed nervous and alarmed at his questions. They were reluctant to provide more than “yes” and “no” answers.

"I knew it was a big story just from the reactions of folks I was talking to," Joseph said.

In mid-February 2004, he presented readers with a startling report: Contrary to a news release issued by the state two months earlier – in which it said it was investigating acid drainage from 100,000 cubic yards of material unearthed during the road project – the amount unearthed was closer to 1 million cubic yards.

They were stumped as to how to clean up the mess. Trucking it to a safe disposal area was an overwhelming challenge. A large excavation truck could carry only about 90 cubic yards.

Further articles revealed questions about whether road builders had been forthcoming, both with the public and with state environmental officials, when they first uncovered the acid rock. Environmental officials told him they learned of it almost by accident.

Joseph wrote about a big mistake made early on, when transportation officials, realizing they had struck pyrite, layered the excavated material with lime to neutralize the acidity and kept digging. The lime failed to counteract the acidity.

Joseph told readers about the dangers of acid drainage – the threat to groundwater supplies and the danger it posed to a nearby trout stream. He interviewed homeowners being supplied with water by the state after indications of pollution in their wells. He talked with a property owner who found dead fish in a nearby stream, and another who complained deer would no longer drink from it.

"The most difficult part was not wanting to overly alarm people, but also being responsible in telling them what they needed to know," Joseph said.

He told readers of how a former congressman, eager to see the highway constructed, had years earlier managed to exempt the $700 million highway project from oversight by the Highway Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When road builders and environmental officials began holding twice-monthly meetings to discuss the problem, Joseph and the newspaper fought successfully to have those meetings opened to the public.

As readers learned of the environmental hazard, they wrote letters to the editor and urged state and local officials to take action, frequently citing Joseph’s reports.

Joseph wrote more than 60 stories in 2004, and dozens more in 2005, putting pressure on the state to spend millions of dollars on temporary measures to protect area streams and groundwater. The coverage prompted three legislative hearings – a fourth is pending – and in December 2004 led Penn State University to sponsor a conference, drawing experts from around the world to consider solutions.

The problem also led the state to change the way it builds roads, establishing new construction protocols. For example, road builders now must stop digging at the first sign of iron pyrite.

The coverage won awards for investigative reporting from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the Western Pennsylvania Press Club and, nationally, from the Inland Press Association. Joseph’s work was a national finalist for public service in the Associated Press Managing Editors contest.

At the end of 2004, Centre Daily Times readers voted it the most important local story of the year.

That story continues. State transportation officials have yet to settle on a plan for cleaning up the acid rock, which still lies in massive piles on Skytop Mountain. This past fall, the department revealed that yet another vein of iron pyrite was uncovered during construction of the highway. Work on the future interstate remains halted until a cleanup plan is in place.

For Joseph, the work isn’t an extraordinary investigate effort: It’s just a good story he grabbed hold of and refused to let go.

His reward?

"I did something for the community that I love,” he said. ><

Who’s Who
Mike Joseph has been with the Centre Daily Times for more than seven years. He covers politics, transportation and growth and development issues. He has undergraduate degrees in labor economics and English from Penn State and a masters in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia.