KMOV-TV’s Craig Cheatham has walked in the footsteps of Erin Brockovich, creating solid impact through his reporting.
The CBS affiliate’s general assignment and investigative reporter covered for the Belo-owned station in St. Louis the insidious lead poisoning that impacted half the children under 6 living within a half-mile of a lead smelter in the small Missouri town of Herculaneum. He also exposed how lead poisoning from another smelter owned by the same company affected all the children under age 6 in La Oroya, Peru.
His local reports in March, April and May of 2002 and subsequent follow-up work south of the border last December played a vital role in uncovering the damage wrought by toxic emissions from The Doe Run Co., a St. Louis-based lead company. Doe Run also owns the lead smelter in La Oroya.
The coverage proved effective.
Shortly after the local media coverage began, Doe Run started to change its practices in Herculaneum in an effort to reduce toxic emissions, and implemented a restitution plan to buy out the homes of 160 of the residents living in the most polluted areas.
Mr. Cheatham’s coverage, along with that of other media outlets, was a factor in the home buyouts, said Marty Van Housen, news director for KMOV. In addition, Mr. Cheatham broke the La Oroya story, said Mr. Van Housen.
“I think what Craig did was show that this little story was part of a bigger story,” he said.
KMOV followed up the local coverage with a two-part series late last year on the La Oroya plant’s impact in the Peruvian town. The series was translated into Spanish and played at a Peruvian congressional hearing that resulted in introduced legislation that calls for an environmental audit of the Doe Run plant, medical care for the sickest residents and a cleanup of the contamination, Mr. Cheatham said. The legislation is still in committee in Peru. “La Oroya, City of Lead” won the 2003 Gerald Loeb Award for business and finance reporting and the National Press Club’s Robert L. Kozik Award for environmental reporting.
“There were many people who believed our aggressive reporting over a short period of time probably had something to do with prompting Doe Run and the state government to reach an agreement, which was widely believed to be earlier than expected on a buyout for 160 homeowners,” Mr. Cheatham said. “Is it a result of what we did? I don’t think so. Did we have something to do with sparking it? I think there’s no question our stories at least sparked some of this.”
The media, including KMOV, started to pay close attention to the Herculaneum story in late 2001, when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources released a study detailing the extent of lead poisoning in children living near the plant.
In March 2002 Mr. Cheatham reported that Doe Run knew exactly when air monitors would test for toxins from the plant, raising the possibility that the company could pump out more poison when it wasn’t being tested. The Department of Natural Resources launched an investigation the next day and began round-the-clock testing a few weeks later, Mr. Cheatham said. Two days after Mr. Cheatham’s report aired, the company agreed to buy out the 160 homeowners.
Mr. Cheatham said, “I went down there [to Herculaneum], and people came up to me and told me their stories, the effect it had had on their families, that people were sick and nobody was listening to them. When you have an entire community that’s poisoned, you started to think of Erin Brockovich and you wonder if we have something like that going on here. I think what happened in Herculaneum was disgraceful. I think it’s disgraceful that it took the media so long to investigate the problem.”
That’s partly why he made the decision to examine whether there might be similar problems in La Oroya.
“What [Doe Run did] in La Oroya is the classic story of an American company having carte blanche to pollute as much as they want in this little town and have nobody back home find out about it,” he said. “What really hit me was that we were driving into the city and we hadn’t even seen the plant yet and already you could taste the poisoning in the air. It would burn your throat, burn your eyes. The residents wanted to know what could we do to change things. I said, `I don’t know if this will make any difference for you. All I can promise is I will do my best,”’ he said.
Mr. Cheatham’s “best” involves a newfound evangelism. He has contacted national daily newspapers to generate their interest in the story and hopes to encourage fellow reporters to tackle similar stories when he speaks at the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in New Orleans this week.
“I am going to try to convince the reporters there that there is always something that you can do. There is always a way to aggressively report what a company is really doing,” he said.