1. Get the plans. First, go out and get the Risk Management Plans for every chemical facility in your county. Lawmakers are busy trying to close these documents off from the public, especially journalists. If you don’t get them now, they’ll be gone, and in the event of a chemical release in your community, you won’t be able to tell your readers vital details about the calamity. Records once available to reporters in 2002 are already gone in 2007. Why put yourself at the mercy of corporate flacks and overburdened public agencies for information during a disaster? With the RMPs, you have what the company told the federal government could happen in a “worst case scenario.”
2. Try to get into some plants. See if you can find ways to creep into chemical plants, but make sure you check with legal advisors first to see if your state has trespassing laws for walking onto sites. In a chemical facility, you can tell if you are near hazardous materials when tanks, pipes, or machines are marked with HAZMAT signs or an orange windsock.
3. Take photos of everything that isn’t strictly proprietary. Make sure you take pictures documenting your entire trip to the facility, from how you entered the facility to pictures of the tanks themselves. Also, be sure to take notes and write down the names of the officials in charge of safety as they are often listed on the chemical tanks.
4. Cultivate inside sources. Develop relationships with concerned employees within the state and federal government or chemical industry insiders. These sources might be able to supply you with reports or documents that could help your investigation.
5. Know the repercussions of your reporting. Be tough in your reporting, but realize that your investigation might result in employees being fired. When you call security officials and clue them in to your reporting on safety hazards at their facilities, in all likelihood, they will not want to talk to you. You should always call their bosses and let them know what you are reporting on well in advance before the story goes to print.
6. Prepare for the backlash. Be ready to deal with criticism, as many government officials and interest groups might take serious offense to your investigation. But remember to “think like a terrorist” during your reporting. Is a terrorist more likely to talk to public relations people and ask for tours of chemical facilities, or would a terrorist simply walk around to the back of the unfenced site?
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This guide is adapted from the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW’s official entry form to the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (IRE) annual awards competition. IRE’s contest recognizes the best in investigative reporting -– by print, broadcast and online media. A friend of this program, IRE has often provided the EXPOSE team with guidance as we produce the program and Web site. It’s a great resource for journalists and would-be journalists. Check out IRE at www.ire.org.