A story had been sitting in Demetria Kalodimos’ back yard for more than 15 years. One day in spring 2005, the anchor at Meredith-owned NBC affiliate WSMV-TV in Nashville decided to look into the possibility that a local landfill had polluted nearby well water and to determine the extent of the damage. “The story was a sleeping giant. All you had to do was say, `Let’s go down and do this sucker,”‘ she said.
She ventured to nearby rural Dickson County and discovered that a bankrupt automotive parts company had dumped toxic chemicals into a landfill. The chemicals subsequently leaked into the nearby water. The water traveled through the unpredictable, rocky geology of Tennessee and up into private and public wells, leading to an increase in birth defects, worthless property and “environmental racism,” meaning local authorities took much longer to address the complaints of black residents than those of Anglos, Ms. Kalodimos said.
“I had heard certain levels of this toxic chemical were found in the well water, but not to worry: `It’s safe.’ Every time someone makes that determination that it’s safe from a longstanding landfill, you know to check it out,” she said. “As frequently as this stuff happens, it doesn’t come to light until someone explores it. It’s just the old-fashioned reporter antennas where you heard of this and you look into it.”
She said neither the city nor local officials cooperated, so to tell the story she relied on victims, former scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency and records and audiotapes from previous public hearings, some 20 years old or more. “The city didn’t want to set the record straight even if we had something wrong, which I don’t think we did,” she said.
Her investigation turned into a five-part series with three follow-ups that aired in May 2005. Each one lasted five to eight minutes. Ms. Kalodimos said she even had a “Deep Throat”-type source who would leave information for her in brown paper envelopes because the source couldn’t be seen talking to the reporter covering the story.
The company doing the polluting had left behind a long list of creditors as well as former employees now losing health and life insurance benefits. “Not only did the company pollute and potentially maim babies, they left pensioners high and dry in the final moment,” she said.
She continues to follow the story, reporting on attempts to sell the homes, the financial challenges the residents face and whether the water will ever be safe.
“There are a zillion angles. So I tried to chip away at what became the most compelling, most human aspects, and I still try to stay with it and that’s one of the things we don’t do in TV in a meaningful way,” she said. “It will be a story for generations, and the sad thing is it’s put a mark on that community.”