Journalistic sagas throughout the years

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Charles H. Featherstone

I was on vacation last week, so someone needs to get me up to speed. Did the lake catch on fire?

My wife and I were in Canada, taking in the waters at Ainsworth Hot Springs, paying little attention to the world we’d left behind. It was an extremely uneventful vacation, though it nearly began with me facing the business end of a Mountie as I almost ran through the border checkpoint, not entirely sure where I was supposed to stop.

Hearing “Hey punk, you feeling lucky today, eh?” while staring down the barrel of a pistol is not the best way to start a vacation, I’m thinking.

But back to the lake. Did it catch on fire? Because that seems like the only thing that hasn’t happened to Moses Lake yet.

One of the features of my nearly 30-year-long journalism career have been these huge, ongoing stories. Great journalistic sagas, if you will.

My first real reporting job with The Herald Journal in Logan, Utah found me responsible for covering Preston, Idaho (yes, where “Napoleon Dynamite” was filmed) and the great lake of gasoline sitting atop the town’s groundwater.

Once upon a time, before it was bypassed by the interstate highway, Preston was a major stop for food and fuel. Prior to the 1970s, the law didn’t demand that gas station owners pull up their underground storage tanks when they went out of business, so all those tanks sat in the ground, full of gasoline, slowly corroding and eventually leaking.

A great lake of gasoline sat atop Preston’s groundwater, and in a heavy rain, gasoline would seep into the town’s storm drains and sewers. Fumes would build up, and a time or two explosions tossed manhole covers into the air.

At least, so I was told. Never saw exploding manhole covers myself.

The state of Idaho and the Environmental Protection Agency were busy all over town pumping and filtering and aerating, trying to deal with it. I wrote story after story, every time something new happened, having learned to boil down the essence to three short background paragraphs included in every new write-up.

Even as a wire service reporter in Washington, D.C., I caught hold of a story about an unapproved genetically modified corn contaminating non-GMO corn streams, and story after story about that took up the better part of a spring and summer.

Here, it has been the travail of the Moses Lake School District’s high school construction bond and now, of course, the phosphorus and algae on Moses Lake.

Truthfully, I’m not much of a scientist. I got a D-minus in high school chemistry, and that was a gift from a teacher who never wanted to see me again. Mostly, I could never relate lab results with the math we had to do. Complex math mystifies me. I had the same problem in a university econometrics course, and could never get the same answer twice when doing regression analysis.

Still, for all the water I’ve written about, I really should have majored in hydrology (with a minor in accounting, because while intricate, it’s not calculus). I have tried to make sense of it all, and then tried hard to explain in my reporting what I think I understand. It doesn’t always work, and I still get things incomplete or wrong sometimes.

But that’s the blessing of these great, ongoing journalistic sagas. There’s always another opportunity to get it right.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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