Why I do what I do

(Editors note: This is the first of a series of monthly columns written by Toledo Blade environment reporter Tom Henry exclusively for Great Lakes Echo. Echo will also be carrying some of the columns Henry writes for the Blade)

First, let me say I’m thrilled to be writing a column for Great Lakes Echo.

I grew up enamored with the Great Lakes in West Michigan during the 1960s and 1970s and started writing about them professionally as a cub reporter at The Bay City (Mich.) Times in the early 1980s. I was among the first to report how Great Lakes governors were getting a tad nervous about how our region’s vast supplies of fresh water were becoming more coveted as America’s population and power structure was shifting to the Southwest during former President Ronald Reagan’s first term.

But let me stop right there, step back for a moment and tell you what I hope to accomplish.

Column writing is a great venue for seasoned environmental writers like me because it gives us a little more elbow room, writing-wise.

As a looser, more conversational form of communication, it helps narrow the gap between those who might ordinarily read an environmental story and those who might not, thereby bringing more people into the fold and, hopefully, broadening everyone’s knowledge base and appreciation for the lakes.

Humor helps

Those of you who have seen the column I’ve written at The (Toledo) Blade since 2007 know I’m as just as apt to get my point across by inflecting some humor as I am about being serious. This debut column is one of those that tends to be more on the serious side, a reflection of why I do what I do.

It is, perhaps, fitting that it was posted the week after Halloween. Because, in some ways, I feel haunted. Not in any ghosts-or-goblins way – but by some voices I hear in the back of my head from time to time.

Most journalists, including myself, wonder occasionally why we’re in this business. Should we be doing something else? Many ponder that question deeper today in lieu of our industry’s unprecedented layoffs and salary cuts.

Of course, if it was ever about the money we would have never jumped in. But what drives us to do what we do?

A love of writing. The chance to shed light on a problem in hopes that those responsible will be held accountable for it.

Advice from a movie star

But what else? What drives some reporters, such as myself, to step away from the pack and immerse themselves into the specialty genre of environmental writing?

For me, there’s Robert Redford’s voice.

When I attended my first national Society of Environmental Journalists conference in 1994, Marla Cone – then a Los Angeles Times environmental writer and now the editor-in-chief of another highly respected publication, Environmental Health News – asked Redford for advice on how to stay motivated on the environment beat. Both then and now, it’s a beat that barely catches the attention of many newspaper executives.

“You’ve got to ask yourself,” Redford said in regard to environmental writing, “if you don’t do it, who will?”

The role of watchdog

Then there was a series of phone calls I got from one of the readers of The (Toledo) Blade, where I’ve worked since 1993. This particular guy and I had never met face-to-face, but we chatted a few times about something we had in common: young sons with autism.

He was impressed by my growing interest in environmental issues, especially with neurotoxins such as Great Lakes mercury. Not that I was on the verge of uncovering new pollutant-health linkages. Those are hard enough for the world’s top epidemiologists to prove. He just seemed grateful to know a journalist in his town who was honestly trying to be a watchdog.

The last time we spoke was about a decade ago. I could tell by the crackle in his voice that something was wrong. He was weeping and depressed.

“You don’t understand,” he cried into the phone. “You’re the only one around here who’s doing this. You’re my hero.”

So, every now and then, when I wonder if I’ve had enough, a haunting voice in the back of my head reminds me that I’m someone’s hero.

Then there is the vast assortment of people I’ve met over the years.

Crime victims

Kim Tolnar, an ad rep for a Columbus-area television station. Frank King, a suburban Seattle car dealer. Lois Gibbs of Love Canal fame. Warren and Wendy Brown of Clyde, Ohio.

All have something in common: Their lives were upended through no fault of their own, but through the ineptitude of others.

They have each been victims of a crime.

Environmental crimes.

Kim Tolnar’s life as a young, vibrant Ohio woman was put on hold by nine months of leukemia treatments in 1994. She was one of several graduates of the River Valley school district near Marion, Ohio, who believed they had been exposed to toxic chemicals beneath the district’s former middle school complex – a World War II military waste dump the government never told the school district about when it was formed and acquired the land in the late 1950s.

Distraught by what happened, Kim was convinced God had sent her to a Seattle cancer center to die. One night, she tried to pull her catheter out of her chest only to be stopped by the loving hands of her father, Kent Krumanaker. He and his wife, Roxanne, went home with Kim and formed a citizens group that forced Ohio to launch the largest environmental investigation in the state’s history. Many questions still remain, though the district moved into a new school complex in 2003.

Frank King’s story has parallels in that he also never expected to be thrust into the activist spotlight. But that’s what happened after a tragic blaze on June 10, 1999, when his 10-year-old son, Wade King, was caught in a massive fireball in Bellingham, Wash. with a teen and another youth. The origin of the fire was a ruptured underground pipeline in need of repair. The case led to national safety reform for the largely overlooked pipeline industry after evidence about unheeded warning signs emerged.

Frank’s boy loved baseball. The massively burned child lost 90 percent of his skin but lived well into the night. Frank later told members of Congress how he fumbled for words to comfort his son when the boy asked him from his hospital bed why he had to die.

“Heaven needs a catcher,” Frank whispered.

Passionate crusaders

Many of us know the Lois Gibbs story. In the late 1970s, she was a self-described suburban housewife from the Niagara Falls area who, like the Krumanakers years later, began working with other families to question the impact that a toxic dump was having on their children after they had become sick.

The evacuation of families from the planned area known as Love Canal led to the creation of modern public right-to-know laws about the types of pollution have been discharged into streams, land, and air across America – data that has been especially useful in assessing the health of the Great Lakes over the years. Gibbs founded and continues to operate the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Falls Church, Va.

That brings me to the Browns. Warren, the current Sandusky County administrator in Fremont, Ohio, about 35 miles southeast of Toledo, is also Sandusky County’s former clerk of courts.

He isn’t your prototypical activist. He and Wendy’s daughter, Alexa, died of a mysterious childhood cancer in 2009 at age 11.

Childhood cancers are rare enough, but Alexa’s was one of about 20 cases since 2001 the Ohio Department of Health went on to verify as a cancer cluster in the vicinity of Clyde, Ohio. The state agency also said this is a cancer cluster with an unknown environmental trigger. After a couple of years of data-crunching and field-testing, the state health department and officials from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency haven’t identified the cause.

The Browns, like so many other people, are searching for closure. That doesn’t appear to be coming soon, though. State health officials have widened the probe, finding out the cancer cluster encompasses the county’s entire eastern half and then some.

A living laboratory

The Great Lakes fascinate me, as they do many other people with their ruggedness, their beauty, their resiliency.

You’ve likely read or heard some of the region’s most impressive statistics, such as how the lakes hold 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water and how they create a sense of home for more than 30 million Americans, Canadians and First Nations.

But what’s missing in stories sometimes is how they’re a living laboratory, an unprecedented experiment for how modern man co-exists with nature. The Great Lakes endure everything from pharmaceuticals to farm runoff, always a step ahead of researchers in part because of an onslaught of 170-some invasive species.

They inspire and they humble us. They challenge us. They teach us things about ourselves, good and bad.

When I listen to people like Warren Brown say how he just wants to come face-to-face with the polluter who killed his daughter, I think of how and why I got into this business.

I’m a baby boomer, a child of the ’60s who grew up questioning authority and hoping that truth and justice would prevail. I delivered an afternoon newspaper, The Grand Rapids Press, on the day when the headline “Nixon Resigns” appeared on the front page. Watergate made an impression on me, as it did so many other kids of my generation who went to college to major in journalism.

We can accept Great Lakes pollution as a fact of modern life.

Or we can view it as a sign that someone has wronged someone else.

Pollution alters our climate. Our landscape. Our food. Our water.

It is an environmental crime, but a crime nonetheless.

I hope you’ll follow me in Great Lakes Echo. That is why I do what I do.

Tom Henry covers the environment for The (Toledo) Blade. This is first column for Great Lakes Echo.

About Tom Henry

Tom Henry is a Michigan native who began his 30-year journalism career at The Bay City (Mich.) Times. He created The (Toledo) Blade's environment beat when he was hired by that Ohio newspaper in 1993. He has won numerous awards for his Great Lakes coverage and was elected to the Society of Environmental Journalists' national board of directors in October, 2010. He has received fellowships from SEJ, Vermont Law School, the Montana-based Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources and Ohio State University's Kiplinger Public Affairs Reporting Program. A four-day series on Great Lakes climate change he wrote in 2008, which included research in Greenland, was recognized by The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and Columbia Journalism Review. Tom has contributed chapters to two books (one on Florida rivers and the other on nuclear power) and essays for scholarly magazines such as Harvard University's Nieman Reports and Michigan State University's EJ magazine.

  • Wendy

    Tom…Thank you for your article. Ijust stumbled upon it today on the internet!!

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  • Teresa

    Tom has always been our rock. Having worked on environmental issues in Ohio for almost 20 years I always knew he would be there to give voice to those who needed him the most.

  • Gary

    Hey Tom….

    …what a kickoff commentary.

    I’ve followed your Blade work since 2005 and always wanted more of your thoughts vs. the straight news, that of course you do so well.

    Kudos to the Echo for grabbing one of the region’s top enviro reporters.

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Gary Wilson

  • Barb

    This is one column I will definitely follow.

  • Cynthia

    Tom, you’re also an inspiration to your readers outside the Great Lakes region. I remain a loyal one in Florida. Best of luck with the new column.

  • John

    Thanks for all you do to shed light on environmental issues and to bring clarity to their significance. I look forward to your next column and many many more. On behalf of all who care about the Great Lakes, thanks for being the one to do it.

  • Jane

    Thanks for a ray of hope that the good guys are still around on a day when the weight of the elections is heavy on my environmental hope.

    Maybe your wit, stories and humor can help my new senator understand that climate change isn’t the result of solar flares, and that “drill baby” isn’t the best option for a freshwater wonder.

    Keep asking question, keep digging. The lakes need you.

  • Sandy

    So happy Tom is writing this column. What Tom did not share is his incredible in depth coverage of the Davis Besse nuclear power plant. Without Tom’s decades of coverage of issues at Davis Besse, heaven knows what would have happened. Thank you Tom.
    Tom also went to Greenland and was able to write some great pieces on climate change which I would encourage the Echo to make available.
    Tom’s current physical location in the Western Lake Erie basin allows, through Tom, the larger Great Lakes audience with the Echo articles to gain a greater insight into the Great Lakes canary in the coal mine Western Lake Erie waters. These west Erie waters are currently getting greener every year and the coveted walleye populations are declining.
    Echo readers are in for a real treat with Tom Henry’s writings

  • Christopher Reader

    Very nice. Thank you for the perspective.

  • Mona

    God bless you.