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Thank you to our donors for your support, which made what we did possible. We also wish to extend special thanks to:
It’s been an eventful two years – sometimes fun, sometimes a mountain of work, but always worthwhile. And now it’s time for the PostGlobe to say goodbye and thank you. It’s time for us to move on.
We started as a nonprofit news site created by laid-off staffers of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after the 146-year-old paper printed its last edition on what for others was a festive St. Patrick’s Day in 2009. More than 100 journalists lost their jobs as the paper scaled down its staff and went online-only. Some ended their journalism careers that day, as newspaper jobs nationally continued to evaporate – nearly 15,000 other print journalists lost their jobs that year.
Part of our purpose for starting PostGlobe was to provide former P-I staffers both hope and an outlet, as Kery Murakami, a former P-I reporter who spearheaded the site, told the Seattle Times in those early days. “We want them to know that it’s not over, that you can still write for us, even if you have to get a job at Wal-Mart,” he said.
So it was that Seattle Mariners reporter John Hickey still covered the Mariners, foreign affairs editor Larry Johnson blogged about foreign affairs, art-film reviewer Bill White reviewed art films, and so on, as Columbia Journalism Review wrote in this nice write-up. Six months later, Murakami found himself the “primary reporter, editor, art director, accountant, copy chief, IT troubleshooter,” as another CJR piece put it. People left as they found jobs or ways to get paid for their work: Murakami exited in late 2009 (he currently works at Newsday). John Hickey currently writes for P-I sports legend Art Thiel’s operation, SportsPress Northwest, as well as Comcast SportsNet Northwest. PostGlobe over time has morphed into something else — a community site that does a fair amount of aggregation as well as some of our own enterprise reporting.
A recap of some of our major enterprise:
- Eric Ruthford explored how gangs are turning from selling drugs to selling girls for sex as part of a special series on teen prostitution in Seattle.
- Our reality check on the King County 10-year plan to end homelessness revealed shortcomings; no one could think of a single homeless program that will close for lack of demand.
- We broke the story about City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco getting a $40,000 bonus from the city. It’s impossible to know if another reporter would have discovered that eventually. But we may never have known had we not been there.
- We broke the story of how Seattle might ban smoking in parks.
- We “ truth-squaded ” the proposal by King County Council members to have Seattle pay for the downtown bus tunnel and were the only ones to report Metro believes Seattle was already paying its fair share.
- We were the only ones first to reported a bit of Seattle history – the sale of four old ferries that cruised Puget Sound for decades. And we chronicled their departure for a scrap yard in Mexico.**
The thanks for these stories goes not just to the journalists, but also to our generous donors, mostly civic-minded citizens who gave in small denominations. You made possible this venue for bridging the gap and more fully informing Seattle readers.
We’ve been proud to be part of what journalism observers are calling a hotbed of innovative journalism models here in Seattle.
But there have been obstacles.
A person shouts in front of a car lit by rioters shortly after the Canucks were defeated by the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup in Vancouver, B.C., on June 15, 2011, “As long as it’s staying safe, it’s good to express yourself.” the person said. (Photo copyright – Karen Ducey of KarenDucey.com)
Donations have fallen off. Ads have generated no meaningful revenue — ever. We began with no startup money. We obtained no grants. All of which actually provided unusual freedom. But as a volunteer-run site, we’ve run out of helping hands as unemployed journalists have left for jobs. (Which is a good thing!)
So this is our final month.
We will attempt to keep the site up for archival value. But we will no longer collect donations through what has been our fiscal sponsor, Shunpike, which had made donations tax-deductible.
This logo greeted theater-goers attending the 2009 Seattle play “It’s NOT in the P-I.” The P-I wasn’t the only paper to close that year. Nearly 15,000 layoffs and buyouts took place at U.S. newspapers in 2009, reports the Paper Cuts blog.
We were called the PostGlobe because of that wonderful big representation of Mother Earth atop the waterfront building where New York-based Hearst Corp. housed the P-I staff before so many were let go. We attempted to follow the “post-Globe” activities of that seasoned group of journalists who for so long had worked under that Globe to offer Seattleites smart, scrappy local insights and superb photography.
As we end SeattlePostGlobe.org, it coincidentally turns out that this week also marks a turning point for the hardworking
but tiny staff of the online-only Seattlepi.com: Its journalists are leaving their Globe-topped building to move into a different space nearby. The future of the Globe itself is uncertain. A fitting symbol for the state of indepth journalism.
We ask that you continue to choose to read the insightful writings of the independent journalists we have attempted to highlight at PostGlobe, including the dogged reporters at ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, Common Language Project, InvestigateWest, and Tom Paulson’s Humanosphere. Please consider bookmarking Paul Nyhan’s Birth to Thrive blog on early learning, Gene Stout’s music reviews, Martha Baskin’s environment reporting, as well as checking out stories from nonprofit Crosscut and local independent blogs, such as Justin Carder’s hyperlocal Capitol Hill Seattle Blog and Jonah Spangenthal-Lee’s SeattleCrime.com.
Seattleites know the power of voting and of spending money at indie establishments. Exercise your power to improve journalism: Support independent journalists. Click on their stories. Spend time with them. “Like” their articles on Facebook. Tweet about them. You will, in this way, show grant makers and advertisers that they’re worthwhile; not all news media must be reduced to fashion photos and cat videos.
We have attempted at PostGlobe to serve as a megaphone for indie journalists, and now it’s your turn to grab the megaphone. Thank you for accepting this easy but powerful charge. You have more power than you may ever know.
Sally Deneen, co-founder and curator
** This story originally incorrectly stated that PostGlobe was the only outlet to report a bit of Seattle history – the sale of four old ferries that cruised Puget Sound for decades — and that we were the only outlet to chronicle their departure for a scrap yard in Mexico. We regret the error.
In fact, we tried to do a unique take on the subject at the point where the scrap-yard folks were about to haul the old ferries off to Mexico, but the PostGlobe wasn’t the only outlet covering the subject, as pointed out by two commenters below. Reached via email today (July 30), reporter Larry Lange set the matter straight. He recalled reporting on the ferries: “There had been other stories on the pending sale of the ferries for scrap in late 2008, before the PostGlobe started up. All the local media, including the P-I when it was printing, the Herald and others reported the ferry system’s plan to sell the boats.
“What Grant and I did for the Post Globe months later was a long followup that traced the history of the four boats, the decision first to take them out of service and then the difficulties getting them sold. One previous sale had fallen through because scrap-metal prices had dropped. The ferry system ultimately had to take a lot less money for the boats than it had hoped, just to get them out of the maintenance yard. The PostGlobe story picked up the thread when the state finally got a firm buyer and had his check in hand, hence the new story lead: ‘this time, the scrap yard for sure.’” – S.D.
I recently sat down for 90 minutes to speak with six Afghan judges, all of them women, and an English-Dari interpreter, a man. They spoke to me as individuals. They aren’t preparing any investigations or indictments. The relevance of their being judges is that they know the law. They’ve studied international law, and they were visiting the United States to learn about our legal and political systems. They believe the United States is guilty of war crimes.
I was the one who raised the subject. I pointed to Italian convictions of CIA agents for kidnapping, Spanish investigations of U.S. officials for torture, etc., and asked what these judges’ views were on international law violations, universal jurisdiction, and what appear to be clear crimes committed by the United States in Afghanistan.
The first judge to reply spoke of the horrors of the Taliban, and of the initial gratitude for the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban 10 years ago. But, she said, the mission changed to one of fighting terrorism, and through that “we lost all of our civil rights.” She described U.S. troops kicking in doors of houses at night with women and girls asleep in their beds. She described disappearances and accounts of torture. What the United States and NATO are doing, seizing people, locking them up, disappearing them, and torturing them is clearly illegal and against international law, she said. According to international treaties, she went on, when one country occupies another, the host country does not lose its sovereignty, and yet all decisions are now being made by the occupying country without any say by the Afghan government.
A second judge spoke up. “Your Constitution speaks of freedom and a people’s government,” she said, “but the United States is running secret prisons, torturing, disappearing people, and locking people up for years with no due process.” The behavior of the United States, she said, violates everything that she and her colleagues were being taught the United States stands for. “It may seem trivial,” she continued, “but it affects our daily lives.” If a member of the international occupying forces gets into a hit and run with their car, and you go to the base to complain, you are threatened. They have total immunity from any rule of law, she explained.
She said that in a case involving an Australian, he was turned over to Afghan courts for a murder trial, because the military was not involved. But with U.S. forces, she said, we have to rely on the U.S. court system, and we often hear about these people being acquitted. The judge went on to make a broader point. With the great cost to the United States in blood and treasure, she said, we ought to be grateful. But the perception Afghans have of the U.S. forces, she explained, is of a group of arrogant occupiers who kick in doors.
The first judge to have spoken then joined back in, remarking that “the United States tells other countries how to be democratic and operate within a rule of law, but the United States as role model breaks every one of those things.”
A third judge expressed her agreement. She said that she had witnessed helicopters coming and taking away all of the men in a compound, leaving the women and children screaming. This is not war, she said, but if it is a police action then who authorized it? There is no probable cause, she said. None! And the men are disappeared.
Judge number two broadened the discussion to the topic of the occupation itself, expressing her belief that the U.S. public was being kept in the dark about the real motivations behind the war. Al Qaeda isn’t there and bin Laden is now dead, she pointed out. People should be given some reason for this going on, she said. I replied that actual motivations included the stationing of bases and weapons, a gas pipeline, profiteering, etc. At that, the women all began nodding and talking. A fourth judge to speak up interjected that even a child in rural Afghanistan knew the truth of what I had said, that the Taliban was simply an excuse.
Then it was my turn to answer questions. What does the average American think of war casualties? Why is there so much militarism and patriotism in the United States? Why is it that for centuries the United States has gone abroad to fight wars in other countries? Do Americans know how the rest of the world sees their country? Why do politicians choose policies that kill people? I answered to the best of my ability.
And then, surprisingly perhaps — although this is quite common in speaking with Afghans, especially better-off urban Afghans — the discussion swung around to the judges’ concern that things might be dramatically worse if the United States were to leave before establishing stability.
I asked them whether, after 10 years, stability was increasing or decreasing. They admitted that it was decreasing but proposed that a change in approach might reverse that. The change in approach that at least one of them recommended was for the United States to get tough with Pakistan, which was to blame for the worst forces within Afghanistan. The interpreter apologetically explained that Afghans blame Pakistan for everything just as every country, he said, blames some other country. Yet it is certainly true that Pakistan has done great damage to Afghanistan for decades, with great assistance from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, not to mention the damage done by the Soviet Union. This does not, of course, mean that a different U.S. approach to Pakistan would create a stable U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet occupation was destabilizing for the same reason the U.S. occupation is destabilizing: people hate being occupied.
Well, what would I do? That’s what they wanted to know: what would I advise Obama?
I told them that I would announce that the military occupation was ending soon, that there would be no bases left behind and no weapons left behind, that I would immediately prosecute war crimes, that I would fund educational and civic and aid organizations run and controlled by Afghans, that I would facilitate open and honest elections, and that I would support any temporary international peace-keeping force favored by Afghans’ elected representatives. As this was being translated, every one of the six judges began applauding and declaring things like “You speak from our hearts.”
The resignation of Rep. David Wu  may seem like little more than a blip in the year’s cavalcade of sexual misconduct by elected officials, from all-male tickle parties and crotch sexting to craigslist trawling. And the swift departure of this Oregon congressman, who said a recent sexual encounter with a friend’s teenage daughter was “consensual,” assures his name will fade as quickly as last week’s debt reduction plan.
But the Wu story, which has been followed closely by few outside the Northwest, deserves more attention. In fact, it is among the most compelling arguments for why news organizations should aggressively pursue allegations of sexual misconduct, even when they seem like ancient history.
I am a reluctant convert to the value of sex as an investigative subject. In the late 1980s, shortly after Gary Hart’s infamous invitation to “follow me,” led to revelations about his extra-marital canoodling aboard the good ship Monkey Business, I was asked by an editor in The New York Times Washington bureau to look into a rumor that Vice President George H. W. Bush had fathered a child out of wedlock. I refused, telling my boss that “I didn’t become a journalist to peer into people’s bedrooms.”
A few years later, a thinly sourced version of the story surfaced in the New York Post. Bush, by then president, brushed it off. “I’m not going to take any sleazy questions like that,” he bristled. “I’m not going to respond other than to say it’s a lie.”
Quaintly, a denial from the president put the story to rest.
A few years later, I was in Arkansas for the New York Times to interview Judge David Hale, a peripheral figure in the Clintons’ Whitewater land dealings. Jeff Gerth and I repeatedly pressed Hale for details on the couple’s feckless attempt to create a vacation wonderland in the Ozarks. Mystified, Hale asked Gerth, who is now a ProPublica reporter, why we weren’t more interested in Clinton’s sex life. Jeff explained that we were from the New York Times and didn’t do sex investigations.
Fast forward to Bill Clinton’s second term, and we were all galloping after the Monica Lewinsky story which, typically, had been broken by our competitors. One weekend I went to visit my brother, a lawyer who respected the sober journalism practiced by the Times. We stopped in a supermarket and I bought a copy of The National Enquirer. “You read this?” he asked incredulously. “Yes,” I replied. “They’ve had a lot of stuff first on Monica.” Thumbing through the issue, I pointed to an article about a stained blue dress. “Who knows?” I said. “This might even be true.”
In 2002, I joined The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., as a managing editor. Within a year, I was part of the management team that bungled one of the most significant sex scandals one could imagine: The story of how a former governor and Carter-administration cabinet secretary had preyed on a teenage girl and covered up his misconduct. Neil Goldschmidt was the golden boy of Oregon politics, a kingmaker with the darkest secret imaginable. We had a plausible tip on the story, but failed to follow up, allowing a competitor, Willamette Week, to break the story and win a Pulitzer Prize.
It marked the second time in modern history that the Oregonian had failed on a big sex story. Earlier, the paper had known about and failed to fully investigate on Sen. Robert Packwood’s habit of making unwanted sexual advances. One of his victims had been a reporter in the Oregonian’s Washington bureau. The story appeared first in The Washington Post, embarrassing the hometown paper.
In the wake of the Goldschmidt story, I pushed the Oregonian’s reporters and editors to run to ground every tip relating to sexual misconduct by a public official.
Our attention quickly turned to David Wu, who was running for re-election in 2004. Wu, a Taiwanese immigrant and lawyer, was an awkward man. Years earlier, the paper had been tipped that he had sexually accosted his ex-girlfriend while a student at Stanford in the mid-’70s. Efforts to confirm the story had been unsuccessful.
We assigned three reporters to try again. The woman at the center of the case politely but adamantly refused to cooperate, saying she had long ago made her peace with whatever had happened. No charges had ever been filed. There was no paper trail of any kind.
But over several months, reporters Laura Gunderson, Dave Hogan, and Jeff Kosseff improbably tracked down witnesses who were willing to go on the record. They found Leah Kaplan, an 82-year-old former therapist at Stanford who had counseled the woman and was suffering from a fatal illness. Kaplan, still angered by the incident, breached patient confidentiality and said that she had pressed Stanford officials to take disciplinary action against Wu. She said they declined to ruin the record of a promising young man who, at the time, was hoping to attend medical school.
Kaplan’s statements were intriguing, but not sufficient. We pressed the reporters to find the campus security officers who responded to complaints of a woman screaming in 1976. Find the cop. He’ll remember.
And so they did. Raoul K. Niemeyer, then a patrol commander at Stanford, remembered that Wu had scratches on his face and neck. He said Wu claimed that what had happened was “consensual.”
Just a few weeks before the election, we had a story ready for publication. Wu hired a lawyer who ferociously counter-attacked, threatening to sue the Oregonian if any story were published. Neither Wu nor the lawyer would answer questions about the incident, but they contacted Kaplan’s family and made it clear they were prepared to hold the dying woman legally accountable for her conduct. Wu’s campaign manager said the candidate would never respond to “unsubstantiated allegations.”
Top editors at the paper were divided about what to do. It was late in the campaign. The incident was decades old. Could one reasonably call it a “youthful” mistake? Was it fair to put someone’s college years under a microscope? The victim was unwilling to come forward. Shouldn’t that weigh? And what about the threats from Wu’s lawyer?
Ultimately, we decided to publish. We concluded that at least some voters would want to know their congressman had this incident in his past. The morning the story appeared, Wu issued a statement saying: “As a 21-year old, I hurt someone I cared very much about. I take full responsibility for my actions and I am sorry. This single event forever changed my life and the person that I have become.”
Wu’s opponent hammered away at his character — to no effect. More than 350 readers wrote to criticize the story, and even the paper’s ombudsman attacked it, questioning its relevance and reliance on second-hand sources.
Wu went up in the polls, winning re-election easily.
Over the next few months, we heard other stories from other women. None was willing to go on the record. It appeared to us that Wu’s aggressive conduct with women may have continued deep into his adulthood. But we were unable to prove it.
The Wu story revived during the 2010 election cycle, when most of his aides quit just after the campaign. Several said his behavior was bizarre. Someone leaked a photo of the congressman in a tiger suit that he had sent aides.
Following the story from New York as an editor at ProPublica, I shrugged. And then came the bombshell disclosure that an 18-year old woman, daughter of a political supporter, had called Wu’s offices and left a voice mail stating that she had been the victim of a coercive sexual encounter with him the previous Thanksgiving.
Oregonian reporters Charles Pope, Janie Har, and Beth Slovic broke the story. Once again, Wu initially refused to respond to questions. Once again, the victim declined to participate in the story. Once again, Wu said it was “consensual.”
After a few more days of hanging tough, Wu took the advice of Democratic leaders and said he would resign after the debt ceiling debate is resolved. “”The well-being of my children must come before anything else,” he said in a statement.
I apologize to the teenager whose distraught call is said to describe a traumatic experience at the hands of a 56-year-old member of Congress. Despite our best efforts, we failed you. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that sex can be a legitimate arena for investigative reporting. It certainly was in the case of David Wu.
Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences. This story appeared originally at ProPublica.
Here are some of his depressing results–the average number of hours a day with clouds at Sea-Tac for April through June 2010 and 2011 have simply been the worst over the past 60 years. We are talking about 18-19 hrs a day of cloud on average. And the general trend the last few decades is for more clouds.
Thought Congress had averted a government shutdown by striking a 2011 budget deal back in April? That’s only partly true.
While lawmakers deadlock over long-term deficit reduction plans tied to the raising of the debt ceiling, one federal agency—the Federal Aviation Administration—has been in partial shutdown for nearly a week. The issue has largely been overshadowed by the debt debate, but as the New York Times notes, it’s another example of our current legislative dysfunction that’s had real consequences.
So what’s happened?
Last week, Congress adjourned on Friday without reaching an agreement to extend the operating authority of the FAA, meaning the agency currently doesn’t have the authority to collect taxes on ticket sales, which it uses to pay for some-4,000 employees’ salaries. The lost revenue amounts to about $200 million a week.
As a result, thousands of workers have been furloughed and may not get paid for days missed. And without FAA officials to oversee airport construction projects, the agency has issued stop-work orders to more than 150 projects across the country, putting thousands more private-sector construction workers temporarily out of work as well.
Can I still fly?
Yes, you can still fly. As we explained back in April when the government was at risk of closing its doors, when a shutdown occurs workers are either categorized as essential or non-essential. Air traffic controllers and plane safety inspectors, of course, have been deemed to be essential and are still on the job, and so far the shutdown doesn’t seem to have affected airline schedules.
Who’s benefitting from this?
Probably not you. Initial reports suggested that minus the ticket taxes, consumers could reap some savings on air travel—and some may have at first. But some airlines soon changed their minds and raised their prices so that tickets now cost about as much as if the tax were still there. In other words, money that would have gone to funding the FAA has gone straight into the pockets of some major U.S. airlines.
“This short-term additional revenue for airlines, which does not mean a fare increase for consumers, benefits all stakeholders—customers, employees and investors—by temporarily improving tiny industry margins to better cover costs and enable airlines to invest in their product and service,” a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for large U.S. airlines, told NPR.
So why did Congress force the shutdown?
Several minor disputes have led to this impasse.
The first is an industry-backed provision by House Republicans that would make it harder for aviation and railroad workers to unionize, essentially by counting workers who didn’t vote in a union election as having voted against the union. President Obama has threatened to veto any FAA bill containing this measure, but it’s included in the House version of the bill anyway.
The second dispute is over a program—called the Essential Air Service Program—that provides subsidies to airlines that fly into tiny airports servicing more than 100 rural communities. House Republicans have tried to reduce those subsidies and phase them out in all states except for Alaska and Hawaii. The move has been opposed by some lawmakers whose states’ subsidies will be ended.
It’s worth noting that the Government Accountability Office has recommended that Congress reexamine whether funds for the Essential Air Service Program are being used efficiently. But it’s also unclear whether the lawmakers who’ve proposed cutting the program care much about it one way or the other. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation committee, assured a conference of airport executives earlier this month that the House added the provision as a bargaining chip to win concessions on the unionization issue, reported Aviation Week. “It’s just a tool,” Mica told the executives.
The third dispute is over the number of flights that should be allowed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport—another sticking point for lawmakers who frequent the airport more than the general public. The Washington Post describes the dispute this way:
The number of flights that should be allowed at National has long been a source of friction between members of Congress from the Washington region, who are concerned about noise and the region’s two other major airports, and their colleagues from distant states, who want more direct flights home.
Latest Episode: Managing editor Stephen Engelberg joins the podcast to explain the complexities behind the Bruce Ivins anthrax case.
Though these disputes are relatively minor, there’s also a bigger backstory we should mention, and it dates back to 2007. That’s the year that the FAA’s last long-term operating authority expired. Ever since, Congress has been unable to agree on new long-term legislation and has instead kept the agency operating through short-term extensions—20 of them, to be exact. They’re currently trying to work out the 21st short-term extension, even though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has for months said the agency needs the sort of long-term reauthorization given to other federal agencies.
Who’s to blame for this?
Well, Transportation Secretary LaHood has placed the blame squarely on Congress: “Because Congress didn’t do its work, FAA programs and thousands of public- and private-sector jobs are in jeopardy,” he told reporters earlier this week.
Democrats have insisted that Republicans drop the labor provision, which they view as an industry-backed assault on unions. Republicans have criticized Democrats for unwillingness to eliminate “wasteful programs” such as the rural airport subsidies.
Meanwhile, at the estimated cost of $30 million a day, the nearly weeklong stalemate has already wasted about as much than the $200-million subsidy program costs in a year.
When will it be resolved?
The House has passed a bill—with the controversial union measure included—but the Senate is delaying a vote because of the debt negotiations, the Associated Press reports.
Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences. This story appeared originally at ProPublica.
President Barack Obama’s communications director said we’ve “never” been in danger of defaulting before. That’s not true. Congress has come close to failing to raise the debt ceiling before defaulting more than once in recent years, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said that if Congress does not raise the current debt limit — the amount of money that the federal government is allowed to borrow to pay for things such as benefits for entitlement programs and the interest on the national debt — the country will begin to default on its obligations on Aug. 2.
But is this the first time the country has been in “danger” of defaulting, as Pfeiffer claimed?
Hardly. We came close at least three other times, as recently as President George W. Bush’s first term, according to a Congressional Research Service report on the history of the debt limit increases.
“(Washington, DC) – Overwhelming evidence of torture by the Bush administration obliges President Barack Obama to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Obama administration has failed to meet US obligations under the Convention against Torture to investigate acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, Human Rights Watch said.”
Hey, thanks, Sherlock. What was your first clue?
I’m glad someone still cares. But why not care a little faster? This report ends by reviewing foreign efforts to step in where the U.S. justice system has failed, and U.S. efforts — successful thus far — to prevent that.
If Human Rights Watch turns against illegal wars someday, we can perhaps expect a review of the bombing of Libya several years after it ceases. And we’ll be better off, I guess. But why not speak up at the time? If Bush and Cheney belong in prison, why would it have been so unacceptably impolite to impeach them and remove them from office?
David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie”
When he retired after 26 years as an investigator with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of the Inspector General, George Mulley thought his final report was one of his best.
Mulley had spent months looking into why a pipe carrying cooling water at the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois had rusted so badly that it burst. His report cited lapses by a parade of NRC inspectors over six years and systemic weaknesses in the way the NRC monitors corrosion.
But rather than accept Mulley’s findings, the inspector general’s office rewrote them. The revised report shifted much of the blame to the plant’s owner, Exelon, instead of NRC procedures. And instead of designating it a public report and delivering it to Congress, as is the norm, the office put it off-limits. A reporter obtained it only after filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan has thrust the NRC’s role as industry overseer squarely in the spotlight, but another critical player in U.S. nuclear safety is the NRC’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent agency that serves as watchdog to the watchdog.
Now, Mulley and one other former OIG employee have come forth with allegations that the inspector general’s office buried the critical Byron report and dropped an investigation into whether the NRC is relying on outdated methods to predict damage from an aircraft crashing into a plant.
The inspector general’s office, they assert, has shied away from challenging the NRC at exactly the wrong time, with many of the country’s 104 nuclear power plants aging beyond their 40-year design life and with reactor meltdowns at Fukushima rewriting the definition of a catastrophic accident.
“We’re in the nuclear power business. It’s not a trivial business; it’s public health and safety,” said Mulley, who won the agency’s top awards and reviewed nearly every major investigation the office conducted before he retired as the chief investigator three years ago.
“We have to have somebody that’s going to look over the NRC’s shoulder and make sure they were fulfilling their obligations,” he said.
Inspector General Hubert T. Bell  declined to comment, but Joseph McMillan, the assistant inspector general for investigations, said the office has continued to vigorously pursue cases. He confirmed that the aircraft crash case has been closed but said it was proper. Regarding the Byron case, McMillan acknowledged disagreements but said: “I stand by the work we have done.”
The U.S. nuclear industry can point to an enviable safety record — no member of the public has ever been injured by an accident at a plant. Nonetheless, critics point to issues like the NRC’s drawn-out effort to enforce fire rules  as evidence that the five-member commission and the agency it runs are too close to the industry.
The inspector general’s office has traditionally filled a key oversight role, conducting dozens of investigations that have changed how the NRC regulates nuclear waste, fire protection and security, among other things. Its regular reports to Congress  cover waste, fraud and agency performance.
Many federal agencies have similar independent offices to ferret out wrongdoing and improve efficiency. The NRC’s was established in 1989 and has been led for the past 15 years by Bell, who was appointed by President Clinton after nearly three decades in the Secret Service.
‘Everything Seems to Die’
In the office’s history, Mulley has left a big mark.
For years, he documented how the NRC dropped the ball on the handling of nuclear fuel and security in nuclear plants. His reports on defective fire barriers led to congressional hearings and ultimately to a complete overhaul of the agency’s fire protection regulations.
He retired in 2008 as a senior-level assistant for investigations but continued work as an OIG consultant for two more years. Before he retired, Bell and a deputy wrote that Mulley was “so thorough and knowledgeable of all aspects of investigations, that even NRC management recognizes the value added to having Mr. Mulley’s expertise on all cases.”
Mulley is not alone in his concerns about the inspector general’s office. Another former employee told ProPublica that the office has become reluctant to probe anything that could become controversial or raise difficult questions for the NRC.
“They don’t want to do anything,” said the ex-employee, who left out of dissatisfaction with the direction of the office and asked not to be named to protect his current job. “Everything just seems to die.”
The former employee told ProPublica that the OIG’s office had dropped an inquiry into whether the NRC could accurately predict the damage to a plant from an airplane crash, and Mulley confirmed his account, saying the office received a tip in 2007 that the NRC was using an outdated method.
Because a wrong prediction could lead to insufficient protection for the plants, the inspector general’s office opened an investigation, Mulley said. “We went to several experts who said that thing is antiquated, you can’t use it,” he said.
Mulley said that the NRC’s experts insisted that their method was accurate. He said the aim of the investigation was not to prove that the NRC experts were wrong but to show there was a dispute and question whether the NRC should update its predictions.
“In my mind, the OIG was not going to resolve it,” he said. “It raised a valid question.”
The 2001 terrorist attacks drew attention to the potential hazard of an aircraft crash for nuclear plants, and afterward the NRC and nuclear industry examined whether new precautions were needed.
The main industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, commissioned studies that showed U.S. plants could sustain a direct hit  from a modern airliner without any radiation release.
Following 9/11, the NRC adopted a rule requiring nuclear operators to take steps to minimize possible damage  from major natural disasters or an aircraft crash. Two years ago, the commission required new licensees  to assess whether their reactors could withstand an airliner crash.
Eliot Brenner, an NRC spokesman, said the agency’s method of evaluating the risk to plants has been thoroughly checked and relies on “realistic threat parameters.”
McMillan said that OIG completed its investigation into the crash prediction issue and that the case was “closed to the file,” meaning that no report was issued.
The decision to forgo a report usually means that the inspector general found no public safety concerns. McMillan declined to comment on the report or to describe any conclusions. He said it was available only through a Freedom of Information Act request, which ProPublica filed today.
The Byron Plant’s Rusty Pipe
Mulley spent more than a year investigating why the pipe blew out at the Byron plant.
On Oct. 19, 2007, a worker using a wire brush to clean a thick coating of rust from the massive steel pipe ripped completely through the metal. Water shot out , triggering a 12-day shutdown of the plant’s two reactors located outside Rockford, Ill.
The 24-inch pipe was part of the plant’s Essential Service Water System , a network of eight huge pipes that carries water to cool emergency equipment. During an accident, it can be critical because it protects the generators and pumps that keep the reactor from overheating.
“It’s a safety-related system,” Mulley said. “If it doesn’t operate, you can’t operate the plant.”
After the pipe ruptured, the NRC assigned a special inspection team to find out whether Exelon could have prevented it. Mulley put together a four-person team to start a parallel investigation into whether the NRC inspectors should have caught the problem beforehand.
His team interviewed workers and NRC inspectors assigned to the Byron plant since the early 1990s. They concentrated heavily on the inspectors’ actions in 2007, when Byron engineers began scrutinizing pipe sections, called risers, that were partly buried in concrete in a below-ground vault.
Plant engineers performed ultrasonic tests on the thickness of the risers. Originally, the pipe walls were three-eighths of an inch thick , but over the span of three tests, engineers stepped the acceptable thickness down to three-hundredths of an inch  — equivalent to seven sheets of paper.
Mulley’s team found that the NRC’s on-site inspectors had not checked the Byron engineers’ work even though repeated drops in safety margin should have been a red flag. Corrosion in Byron’s essential water system had been discussed in plant meetings, and because testing the risers required repeated use of a crane to gain access, inspectors should have suspected something.
“The NRC is supposed to — if they’re overseeing this thing — take a look at it and say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, what’s going on?’” Mulley said. “But obviously, they didn’t look at that one.”
Mulley found that NRC’s on-site inspectors had repeated opportunities to check the pipes over the years but had not done so. In interviews, the inspectors told Mulley’s investigators that they had been busy with other work. Although inspectors had preformed a required number of equipment checks, Mulley’s report found that their inability to set priorities  was a weakness in the inspection program.
The NRC, it turns out, had received a warning about a similar pipe break at the Vendellos nuclear plant in Spain , Mulley’s team discovered. Peter B. Lyons, then an NRC commissioner, had even mentioned the Vendellos break in a speech, saying the agency was on top of the problem. But the word was never sent to NRC inspectors in the field, Mulley found.
“I don’t think anybody up there was purposely saying, ‘Hey, this is not so important,’” Mulley said of the Vendellos information. “I think they knew it was important. I think they intended to. I don’t think anybody followed up on it, and then it falls into the cracks.”
Report Revised, Kept From Public
Because the Byron incident touched broadly on NRC inspection policies, Mulley opened his case as an Event Inquiry — a report normally intended for release to Congress and the public. He stayed on after retirement to complete it, submitting it in 2009 with some tough conclusions.
The NRC “provided little meaningful regulatory oversight of corrosion of piping in the Byron essential service water system, one of Byron’s most risk significant systems,” his version states . Moreover, the NRC “did not take full advantage of lessons learned” from Vendellos.
Mulley said no one raised questions.
“The report languished for a year,” he said. “Nobody ever got back to me once to let me know, although I emailed them asking what’s going on, what’s happening with this thing.”
Then, in September 2010, the inspector general’s office issued a new version. Mulley’s draft had been thoroughly rewritten, and although the facts were similar, the conclusions were not.
“Although the (NRC) resident inspectors carried out routine oversight responsibilities in accordance with agency requirements, the licensee’s failure to analyze a problem correctly resulted in the resident inspector’s lack of awareness of a significant problem,” it states.
By contrast, Mulley’s version squarely faults NRC inspectors  and procedures.
“From 2000 to 2007, the NRC did not conduct any documented inspection activity of essential service water piping,” it states, while inspectors “provided no regulatory review 2026 to support the licensee’s lowering of the acceptable minimum wall thickness” in the piping.
The revised report did not mention Vendellos or the NRC’s failure to inform inspectors about it. And instead of being issued publicly, the report was classified for internal use only.
“I was amazed,” Mulley said. “This had never happened before in all my years.”
Mulley said the official report left out systemic problems his team uncovered and was not published so that shortcomings in NRC oversight would be hidden from the public and Congress.
“I think changes that could have been made, pressure that could have been applied to improve the process, improve our oversight, are not going to be done,” Mulley said.
‘We Stand by the Report’
Brenner, the NRC spokesman, said the commission has upgraded procedures as a result of its own review  of the Byron incident. In particular, he said inspectors were told to prioritize inspections of areas that had limited access and of equipment that repeatedly degraded, like the pipes at Byron.
McMillan declined to answer any specific questions about the Byron report because the matter has been referred to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which has the authority to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against inspectors general.
He said he believed the Byron case was handled appropriately. “We can have disagreements over how the reports are handled,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we stand by the report.”
A spokesman for the council’s integrity committee said he could not comment. Marshall Murphy, an Exelon spokesman, also declined to comment. The company previously has said it improved procedures after the pipe rupture at Byron.
The significance of a strong, independent inspector general is not lost on the NRC, which is struggling with how to respond to the Fukushima accident after a special agency task force called for a potentially far-reaching reworking of regulations covering catastrophic events.
Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has come under fire recently for pushing too fast on reforms, reflected on the inspector general’s role in a statement last month.
The office, Jaczko said, “plays an important role in enabling the American people to continue to have confidence that my focus as chairman — and the entire agency’s focus — is on effectively carrying out the NRC’s vital safety mission.”
Mulley said that mission is too vital for him to remain silent.
“I am coming forward because I spent my entire life, most of my professional life, doing this,” he said. “We get the power to write these reports, we get the power to talk to you. We’ve got the power to go to (Capitol) Hill, at least keep it in line a little bit as much as we can.
“We can’t be every place but at least try to keep them in line, and I think it’s vital.”
This article appeared originally at ProPublica
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