By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Charlie Ryan

How one local reporter’s diligence led to a proposed EPA ban on a toxic solvent

Woburn Common. Photo (cc) 2012 by Daderot.

This week we learned that the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to ban trichloroethylene, better known as TCE, an industrial solvent that has been linked to leukemia, birth defects, reproductive problems and other health issues.

As Michael Casey of The Associated Press notes, TCE was at the center of a major story in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the late 1970s and ’80s, when six children died of leukemia and a landmark lawsuit was brought in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit alleged that those deaths and a range of other illnesses had been caused by exposure to TCE in the drinking water. But none of that might have happened if not for the reporting of Charles Ryan, then a young reporter at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn. I was working at the paper at the time, and I remember what an enormous impact Charlie’s reporting had on advancing the battle against toxic waste.

Charlie had already reported on the discovery of contamination in the drinking water as well as suspicions that it was linked to a cluster of leukemia cases in East Woburn. The question that had to be answered was whether the cluster was statistically significant enough that it warranted further investigation. In December 1979, the state was about to release the results of a study. Charlie was set to go into Boston and get a copy of the report. Somehow, the story leaked out early, and the Boston Herald American reported the findings: no statistical significance. “I was a little pissed,” Charlie told me years later. “But I went in there anyway.”

Charlie quickly realized that state investigators had made a math error — they were using Woburn’s 1970 population of 40,000, whereas by 1979 that had dropped to 36,000. Correct the denominator, and the leukemia cluster moved into the zone of statistical significance. “That story changed everything,” Charlie told me. His reporting didn’t set well with Woburn’s old-line establishment, and he remembered once being told, “Your father would be turning over in his grave if he knew what you were doing to his city.” Charlie’s response: “That means you didn’t know my father very well.”

Later on, I covered some aspects of the story and was in court for all but five days of the 78-day civil trial. I covered the appeals process, too. The trial was the subject of a terrific book called “A Civil Action,” by Jonathan Harr, and a not-so-terrific movie starring John Travolta. The trial didn’t end well for the eight families who sued. One of the three defendants settled out of court before the trial, a second was cleared by the jury, and the third, W.R. Grace, settled for a paltry $8 million after being found liable for contaminating the water. The jury never had a chance to determine whether the contamination had actually caused the illnesses that were at the heart of the case.

Charlie is now retired after a lengthy career in journalism and continues to live in Woburn. The proposed ban on TCE is long overdue, and it’s part of his legacy as a reporter. It’s also a testament to the vital importance of local news that holds powerful interests to account.

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Yes, local news holds corporations to account. No, hedge funds won’t save them.

Photo (cc) 2008 by mbgrigby

Update II: And the paragraph has been restored. I’m told there was nothing nefarious about its disappearance.

Update: Oh, my. The nutty last paragraph that prompted this post has been deleted. Not a good look, Harvard.


In an otherwise unremarkable story from Harvard Business School about a study into the effects of local newspaper closures on corporate wrongdoing, I ran into this bizarro closing paragraph. The story quotes Professor Jonas Heese, a co-author of the study:

Saving local newspapers isn’t Heese’s specialty, but he points to a recent trend of hedge funds buying up distressed local media outlets as having the potential to stabilize the market and resurrect local news. And that makes him wonder: “Is this a reason to be hopeful?”

No, Professor Heese. It is not a reason to be hopeful. I suggest you stick to statistical analysis, which you seem to be pretty good at. Here’s the abstract, from the Journal of Financial Economics, titled “When the Local Newspaper Leaves Town: The Effects of Local Newspaper Closures on Corporate Misconduct”:

We examine whether the local press is an effective monitor of corporate misconduct. Specifically, we study the effects of local newspaper closures on violations by local facilities of publicly listed firms. After a local newspaper closure, local facilities increase violations by 1.1% and penalties by 15.2%, indicating that the closures reduce firm monitoring by the press. This effect is not driven by the underlying economic conditions, the underlying local fraud environment, or the underlying firm conditions. Taken together, our findings indicate that local newspapers are an important monitor of firms’ misconduct.

Reading this leads me to think about our work at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, when we uncovered a massive toxic waste problem in the early 1980s that may have led to an outbreak of childhood leukemia and other illnesses. Charlie Ryan’s reporting was crucial to breaking the story wide open. In 1998, he recounted in The Boston Phoenix the sequence of events that led the world to understand that Woburn had an environmental and public health disaster on its hands:

Ryan’s most important story came in December 1979, on a development he thought he’d been beaten on. The state’s Department of Public Health was about to release the results of a study on Woburn’s leukemia rate, and Ryan arranged to interview DPH officials. That morning, the Boston Herald American published a front-page story reporting that the leukemia rate was within the normal range for a city of Woburn’s size.

“I was a little pissed,” Ryan remembers, “but I went in there anyway.” He sat down with a DPH statistician, who explained the results to him: essentially, the DPH had taken the number of leukemia cases and divided it by the total population of Woburn, based on the 1970 census. Ryan stopped him. 1970? The population of Woburn, Ryan knew, had fallen from 40,000 to around 36,000. Ryan asked a simple question: What would happen if the lower figure were used? The statistician recalculated the numbers — and, all of a sudden, the number of leukemia cases appeared to be “statistically significant,” the bland-sounding phrase used to describe what was obviously a very real problem.

“That story drastically changed everything,” says Ryan, who got out of journalism a few years ago and now helps run the computers for Essex County Newspapers. “To that point, everyone had considered Anne Anderson to be just a hysterical mom. I think without that story, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state never would have pushed that hard.”

Yes, local journalism is crucial in holding corporations to account, just as it is in keeping an eye on government and other large institutions. But no, hedge funds are not the solution. They’re the problem.

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