WTAE Gets Gunk off Rural Roads

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When WTAE-TV’s Jim Parsons followed up on a tip from a viewer last year, he wound up with sludge dripping off his news car. “It was oozing off the car and dripping down into the creek,” said Mr. Parsons, the investigative reporter for the Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh.

He learned that the substance was a petroleum-based product with a kerosene additive called MC70 that PENNDOT, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, had dumped on rural dirt roads and shoulders to keep the dust down. The chemical was seeping into nearby waterways.

The story started when Mr. Parsons received an e-mail complaint earlier that fall from a viewer who was incensed that PENNDOT had just deposited 10,000 gallons of MC70 on a dirt road in Beaver County.

“At the time, [the viewer] didn’t know what it was,” Mr. Parsons said. “He is the safety director for a local nuclear plant, so he is not easily scared off by environmental issues, but it was all over his car.” Also, 24 hours after the MC70 was deposited on the road, it was still in liquid form.

Mr. Parsons happened to have some extra time the day that the complaint came in, so he got in the news car and headed to the scene, where he learned firsthand what the substance was like. In fact, he collected a sample off his news car to conduct a lab test. “We had it analyzed and it had toxic levels of several heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, barium and selenium,” he said. “These are hazardous chemicals.”

Cars were driving over the road and picking up the substance. When the cars continued across a grated bridge, it dripped into waterways, he explained.

He subsequently reported in a pair of stories that aired Nov. 16, 2005, about the dangers of MC70. In his research, Mr. Parsons learned that the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency also had several regulations regarding the use of brine on roads. That became part two of his report.

PENNDOT did not make any immediate changes, but in March it issued a memo banning the use of the chemical compound MC70. Mr. Parsons learned of the memo three months later and did a follow-up story in June.

“It gives me great satisfaction when one of our stories results in change, but I can’t control that and I think it’s dangerous when journalists are on a mission to try to bring about results,” he said. “This is not advocacy journalism. Our job is to point out something that is wrong-we explore that, we show it, we put it in perspective. When it comes to bringing about change, too many reporters and news directors think the story is not a success unless something changes. I think it’s dangerous. When results do happen, that’s icing on the cake.”