Brian Long of Chemours
Brian Long, Chemours' plant manager at the Fayetteville Works, said work already is underway to meet pollution-control terms in a proposed consent order resolving regulatory claims stemming from undisclosed releases of GenX and other fluorochemicals by the company that tainted the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents. Melissa Sue Geritts / Carolina Public Press

In 2018, Carolina Public Press expanded from its western North Carolina origins to begin routine coverage of issues across the state.

The nonprofit in-depth and investigative news organization also won recognition for its work from the N.C. Press Association, which honored CPP with its top awards for general excellence, investigative reporting and city/county government reporting, among a group of seven accolades.

But for most of 2018, CPP kept telling stories about people in North Carolina and the public-interest issues that affect their lives. CPP published more than 140 news stories spanning issues ranging from the environment to education, government transparency and politics to crime and justice and health care. CPP’s in-depth stories looked closely at complex issues to provide explanation and analysis. Investigative stories delved into information that was not public knowledge, including stories that some people wanted to remain hidden.

This — the first of two articles looking back at 2018 — examines some of the biggest in-depth journalism from CPP this year. Hospital changes, questions about air and water safety, natural disasters, immigration and the constitutional amendments are on tap. Of course, there are others to mention, such as our ongoing reporting on the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, which comprise the bulk of public national forest land in the state.

A second article, coming on Friday, will examine the year’s major investigative projects from CPP.

Wilson Medical Center
Wilson Medical Center in Wilson is one of eight North Carolina hospitals operated by Duke LifePoint, among the dozens it operates in 22 states across the country. The company’s impending merger with a private equity firm has received minimal media attention, despite its potential to change the mission of these health care facilities. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

1. Hospital changes

On Aug. 22, CPP published an article from reporter Michael Graff headlined “Private equity merger includes 8 NC hospitals, flying under the radar.

The story was unusual in several ways.

Word of the impending merger had broken nearly a month earlier, so it wasn’t exactly breaking news. The story spanned the country, with 71 hospitals part of the deal. The eight facilities in North Carolina were spread across the state, from Wilson and Henderson in the east, to Sanford and Hickory in the state’s central Piedmont, to Rutherfordton, Clyde, Sylva and Bryson City in the mountainous west.

But the people with whom business reporters usually talk to for this type of story were mostly not talking or very reluctant to say anything. It would have been easy to take their hints that there was no story.

Instead, Graff recognized that was the story — this lack of transparency about a deal involving so many hospitals spread over such a wide area. And he wrote it that way.

Readers responded, especially in the affected communities. Several wrote in saying that they worked in health-care related professions but had not heard that their local hospitals were about to become part of a private equity firm.

While the impending merger had received a few national and regional business press headlines, the news hadn’t reached the mainly rural communities where people relied on these institutions for the beginning and end of life and everything in between.

CPP has also just begun to look in-depth at what the potential sale of Mission Hospitals to Tennessee-based HCA Healthcare means. A nonprofit hospital system, Mission’s networks spans many western North Carolina counties, and the sale’s value could exceed $1.5 billion, according to some estimates. It’s a move being followed across North Carolina, as CPP’s lead investigative reporter, Kate Martin, reported on Nov. 19 in “Hospital sale would create massive foundation if approved.”

Haywood County precinct Chief Judge Debbie Stamey interacts with David Cairnes as he presents his photo ID at the Canton Public Library to vote in the March 15, 2016, primary election. File photo by Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

2. Ballot amendments

Anyone attempting to watch television in North Carolina in the fall of 2018 knew that the November ballot was full of amendments, thanks to a babble of nonstop political advertising. Social media added even more voices on these ballot amendments.

Voters could be forgiven if they were confused, with many simple questions unclear. How did the amendments get on the ballot and who put them there? What would happen or not happen if a certain amendment passed? Who had issued endorsements or condemnations of which amendments and why?

On Oct. 19, CPP published “Amendments on NC ballot still a mystery to most voters,” from legislative correspondent Kirk Ross. The article attempted to provide clarity and objectivity on voters’ questions, in addition to assuring people that there was nothing wrong with asking basic questions in the face of so many people trying to tell them what to do with their votes. It also dispelled several myths being perpetuated elsewhere.

Throughout the following weeks, readers flocked to the article, which was also heavily shared on social media. CPP heard comments from numerous people who were thankful for reliable information. Ultimately, voters rejected some of the amendments and passed others.

Community members posted this image to Facebook, saying it shows a “verified” immigration agent vehicle staking out a school bus stop in northern Buncombe County. A federal spokesman said he couldn’t be sure if the vehicle belonged to his agency, but it was possible agents didn’t know the location was a school bus stop. Courtesy of Buncombe County

3. Immigration arrests

For several North Carolina communities in April, federal agent arrests of immigrants, allegedly residing here illegally, became a source of both shock and fear.

CPP published a series of three reports written by Managing Editor Frank Taylor discussing the arrests and their aftermath, particularly in the Asheville region and in the Triangle. These stories focused on local reaction, fears about children being targeted and potential legal objections to how agents made the arrests and treated the detainees.

On April 16, CPP published “Immigration arrests spark outrage across North Carolina,” which described rallies and coordinated effort by immigrant groups and their supporters in the Asheville area. On April 19, “Arrest fears stalk North Carolina immigrant communities” included a submitted photo that activists and some public officials said showed a federal agent parked near a Buncombe County school bus stop. The article included the words of Asheville educators who had walked worried children to their homes. It also talked with officials in Chatham County about apprehensions following raids there. A third article, on April 23, “Immigration arrests draw new accusations, protests,” talked with immigrant advocates including an attorney who claimed he was denied access to his clients.

These events did not unite everyone about proper U.S. immigration policy, but the coverage documented what was happening to families residing in North Carolina and how their friends and neighbors responded.

4. Air and water

For those who read local news media coverage in some parts of the state, the identification of GenX in air and water in southeastern North Carolina could have been old news.

But to many people in the state, it was an unfamiliar and unsettling story of tainted water that could just as easily have occurred in their own backyards.

CPP looked repeatedly at issues related to GenX and manufacturer Chemours, located in Bladen County outside Fayetteville, asking difficult questions about how sure we were of the science and how well the regulatory process is working.

On May 23, CPP published “River contamination sparks new urgency for statewide policy on chemicals,” by Ross. The article described lawmakers’ efforts to create a regulatory structure to address previously unknown chemicals that might be harmless or highly toxic.

On Aug. 8, “State’s science on safe level of GenX in water called into doubt,” from reporter Vaughn Hagerty pointed to doubts about how to determine what level of the contaminant was safe.

On Oct. 3, Hagerty wrote “Regulators prepare crackdown on air and water emissions of GenX,” documenting impending action against Chemours from both state and federal agencies.

River Watch says its involvement ensured record NC fine for chemical maker” from Hagerty, on Nov. 30, explored claims from an environmental advocacy group that it had held state and corporate officials’ feet to the fire, resulting in tougher action against Chemours.

Deal would require toxicity studies for 5 chemicals released at NC plant” from Hagerty, on Dec. 11, talked with a chemist at East Carolina University about the testing planned for additional chemicals generated by Chemours.

Mudslide in Polk County, May 2018
A woman walks along what used to be a road in Polk County in May, after a series of storms caused mudslides that took out buildings and roads in the region. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management

5. Storms and floods

Tropical systems struck North Carolina repeatedly in 2018, resulting in multiple overlapping experiences of destruction, disruption and displacement across the state. While these events, especially Hurricane Florence in September, received ample news coverage, CPP looked for important stories that remained to be told about unsung heroes, unheralded hazards and forgotten flood zones.

After both a heavy rain event and Tropical Storm Alberto passed through western North Carolina in May, multiple counties faced destructive and sometimes deadly mudslides and floods. In articles “One disaster or two?” from reporter Ben Ledbetter, on August 15, and “Federal denial of aid disheartens storm-ravaged communities, but state plans appeal” from reporter Karrigan Monk, on August 27, CPP looked in-depth at the federal refusal to offer aid.

After Hurricanes Florence and Michael in September and October, CPP published multiple stories on both the immediate crises and the long-term recovery. Original reporting included:

You can strengthen independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina

Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative reporting for all North Carolinians.

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So, if you value in-depth and investigative reporting in North Carolina, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. It only takes a minute and makes a huge difference. Thank you!

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