After several weeks of busting my tail and immersing myself in sewage (figuratively, not literally!) I was happy to see a story of mine about sewage spills dominate the Sunday front page this week.
The short version of the story is that the state applies minimal fines — and sometimes no fine at all — for sewage spills, even enormous sewage spills. As far as I know, no other media have looked into this issue.
And while it’s my name on the story, there were a whole bunch of people who made this story happen. So I’d like to give a “shout-out” to my awesome coworkers.
From our online staff, director Wes Craft and technical wiz Erik Wiffin came up with a way to link Google Maps that I made to the story. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, our publishing system couldn’t handle the HTML code that Google Maps creates. But instead of just giving me a text link over to my Google Maps, Erik created clickable graphics of the maps.
On the copy desk, Greg Nucifora helped me coordinate the visual elements for the package that ran in the print edition. Shannon Miller made the map for the print edition. David Marsters did the design and layout for the print edition. David also uploaded everything onto the website.
Editors Kathy Flynn and Brian Henley edited the stories and offered suggestions to make them better.
So, that’s what, nine people who contributed to the story? And the only ones with our names on it are me and the photographers. So here’s a virtual, digital toast to my colleagues who too often don’t get any accolades for their work!
Hip-hip-hooray for PIA
While we’re on the sewage spill story, I’d like to mention one other thing. This story would not have been possible without the Maryland Public Information Act.
The state keeps a very cool online database of sewage spills. It’s super-easy to get that information.
But the fines levied for sewage spills are not easily available. I had to send a letter with a formal request for the documents, citing the Maryland Public Information Act.
Basically, Maryland’s PIA law and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allow all citizens access to documents created by their government. PIA and FOIA are not just for reporters — anyone can use them.
In fact, the Maryland Department of the Environment gets so many PIA requests that they have a “reading room” set up in their lobby. It’s a good system — once the staff gathers your documents, they put them down in the reading room and you can mark any pages that you want as copies. They’ll mail you the copies with a bill for any copying charges.
I’ve “PIA’d” the Maryland Department of the Environment frequently over the years. I’ve also sent PIAs to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. I even PIA’d the logs of the county police helicopter and the county-owned fire boat to see how often they’re used for zoning inspections.
There is a wealth of information out there created by the government at your — the taxpayer’s — expense. Go ahead, see what your government is doing.
Did your neighbor have a permit to build his deck? What are the school test scores in a neighborhood where you’re looking to buy a home? How much does the fire department pay in overtime? Does your favorite restaurant have any health code violations? You can find out all that stuff, thanks to the Maryland Public Information Act.