ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Some of the most well-known examples of local investigative journalism have Steve Orr’s byline attached to them.
Orr wrote about some of them in a piece announcing his retirement from the Democrat and Chronicle.
He also talked about his work with Adam Chodak in this interview:
Adam Chodak: Lake Ontario, one of your first big stories in Rochester. What did you find?
Steve Orr: The theme as reflected in the headline there is that Rochester is unique among all the Great Lake cities in that it had turned its back on the lake. It’s the only city whose center of commerce is not on the lakefront. Here, the attraction was the falls on the Genesee, so Downtown is where it is, not on the lake. So the lakefront was neglected, it was ignored by a lot of the populace, so I wrote the story pointing that out and went on for months and months just writing about the lake, introducing people to it if you will, from everything from fishing to tourism to chemical pollution, and it was really well received.
It got a huge amount of attention, just people who were fans of Lake Ontario who really embraced it, and we had a contest of what should we do to jazz up the lakefront, we got dozens, maybe hundreds of entries, it was really interesting, to me, as I think back on it, it was my introduction… I essentially became the official and unofficial at times environmental reporter and that’s something I followed nearly the entire 40 years I was at the D&C, and a lot of the environmental things I did was focused on lakes, on Lake Ontario, on the Finger Lakes, on rivers like the Genesee and Oak Orchard Creek and Irondequoit Creek and Irondequoit Bay and on and on and on. And as I think about it, I feel blessed in a way, I mean we’re all blessed where we live, we have such wonderful water bodies that most places in the country don’t have, they don’t have anything like a Great Lake and then the Finger Lakes nearby and then all these lovely smaller lakes and rivers, and so I spent a lot of time writing about the good aspects and some of the challenges that they faced with pollution, I went on about lake levels in Lake Ontario in a way that was daunting and controversial because of arguments about who was at fault for water being too high or too low, I wrote a lot about blue-green algae, which afflicts all the Finger Lakes now and I think I predicted it would afflict the Finger Lakes before it every did and unfortunately it came to pass so it’s been a blessing in a way to because to write about these lakes because it really is a distinguishing feature of our community.
AC: I think if anybody were to hold up the top 3 to 5 piece of journalism history, you’re reporting on Kodak would be one of them. How did that expose begin?
SO: To be honest, it began with 2 sources of mine, people I knew well, who’s names I have never uttered to anybody, I’m not going to tell you now who they were, who pestered me for months when I would talk to them and I would periodically check with them and they’d say, you know this Kodak thing, you really ought to look into that. Kodak had a sterling reputation, really an international reputation for environmental stewardship, they were a very progressive company in many ways in terms of dealing with the hazardous materials that they used in their work and so on, but unbeknownst to anybody they were very slipshod in their handling of those same chemicals that had caused gross contamination of groundwater under Kodak Park and adjoining neighborhoods, problems in the Genesee River that still haven’t been resolved to this day, vast releases into the atmosphere of toxic chemicals that some thought posed health risks eventually, but all of that was unknown and they had hidden it from the regulators and the state folks had just found out and the people I was talking to had heard about it and were like, “you really need to write about this,” so finally I did.
The public had no idea until that story was published that this was going on, but it was just an enormous story that went on for months, and I think of all the things I’ve worked on over the years, there’s no story that caused more controversy and that was so intense in terms of public reaction. People who moved here in the last few years really wouldn’t get it, but Kodak then just dominated the landscape here and been for years largely above criticism. I mean, they were so powerful and such a big employer that people just really didn’t criticize them much and this was really the first time locally that there was sustained criticism and some people said, “yeah, that’s awful,” but other people pushed back and said it’s not that bad and it was a huge stink that went on for a couple of years. The company eventually admitted that it had hidden these problems from state and federal regulators, they plead guilty to 2 criminal charges in state court, they paid fines in the millions of dollars and they committed to cleanup that is still continuing 30-some years later and spent probably hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their environmental programs and handling of chemicals and just the way it influenced the local public perception of the company I think was probably the most lasting impact of those stories. I would never say it was the beginning of the end of Kodak because Kodak hasn’t ended for one thing and there also other bigger factors that led to their bankruptcy and shrinkage of their business, but it was a sustained black eye I guess. It was pretty intense I guess, there was a lot stories, but I am still pretty proud of what we did back then.
AC: Did the status of the company make you question the direction you were going in at all?
SO: No, but we got an enormous amount of pushback. The editors, there were things. I remember when one editor was leaving the paper a couple years later, she said to me, “Steve you still don’t know what happened to me because of those Kodak stories you did,” just the intense pressure she was put under by the company and company supporters and folks in the business community, so there was a huge amount of pushback and it was very difficult for us to push forward with the stories because of that, but we did. I can’t think of any time we backed off, but it was unique in my time as far as the maelstrom we found ourselves in the middle of just because the company then was such a force in Rochester.
AC: So the CSX, this started when a couple was crossing the train tracks and were hit by train. You ended up exposing problems with the gates. What kind of work was that like for you and the team?
SO: It was an accident in which 2 people died and it was first thought to be their fault. They had driven around the gates as people sometimes do and drove right in front of a train. That proved to be completely false. We found out what had really happened which was CSX had been unable to make the equipment work properly at many crossings across Rochester and across New York State so they just turned it off, they turned off the gates, they turned off the flashing lights and they trusted that the trains would remember to stop at each of these crossings when they got to them and get out and flag the traffic to a halt before going through the crossing. Well, one of the engineers forgot, they kept going and they hit this couple and killed them. It took weeks to pry this out of them, what caused this to happen. That caused us to really look more at the company and their practices and it was a huge amount of work.
The thing I remember is data work. I remember discovering there’s vast amounts of data that the federal government warehouses on railroad safety issues and accidents and so on that nobody I know of in Rochester had ever worked with before. So we spent a lot of time crunching numbers, going through all these records and documenting that that particular railroad had a dismal record when it came to crossing maintenance and safety issues compared to other railroads and their inspections, they were dinged way more than other railroads in New York for problems crossings and tracks and so on, so it was really eye opening. I knew nothing about railroading, but did a lot of stories on their practices which were deficient and sadly in the middle of this I heard from a family, I think they live in Greece, whose daughter had been killed by a CSX train up in Greece up on Ridge Road in an accident they had been told by the police and the railroad that it was entirely her fault. Someone slipped a surveillance video to the family that showed that it wasn’t her fault that showed in fact the gates and lights didn’t work that night and they failed to stop her and she was hit by this train that was crossing through and that just kind of cemented things.
In the middle of this was when a CSX freight train bound for Kodak Park, they failed to set the brakes properly in the yard, and it was probably the biggest fire in decades, the train derailed in Charlotte, up by the lake and caught on fire, and could have been catastrophic. It wasn’t, but it nearly was, so CSX was in the spotlight for months and months and months and the feds hit them with a fine that really today doesn’t look like a lot of money, but at the time was a near record amount. The state government went after them, extracted a fine and a really unprecedented settlement where they promised to reform their practices and so on. Even the 911 center changed the way it responded to motorist calls about crossing gates not working right. So there was a lot of impact that grew out of this one incident, an awful incident where two folks died, but I thought it was some good work that we did and it’s emblematic. One of things I learned as a journalist is that some of the best stories come from places you wouldn’t expect, they don’t come from a reporter sitting around saying, “here’s what we need to investigate, here’s what we need to look into,” they come from chance events, things you hear, things that happen that then expose or lead you to look into and then expose a greater problem and this was an example of that.
AC: You spent your years looking behind closed doors, going underground, if you will. Now that you’re retired, what’s your reflection on all that?
SO: I wrote a retirement piece for the Democrat & Chronicle going over all that and the point I made there is one I make here. So many of these stories come from the public. They’re not things that that journalists dream up sitting around a newsroom that they say ought to be covered, they come from people who call you on the phone, they send you letters, the write an email, text you, say “you really need to look into this” or here’s this great idea you have, can you do something with it. The best of our job is taking those recommendations, those suggestions and tips and leaks from readers and bringing them to light. And if there’s something that needs to be investigated, do the investigation. If something needs to be celebrated, doing the celebration. And as I thought about it, just the connections between journalists and readers listeners, viewers is a symbiotic one and that they really enable and support everything we do, or the best of what we do at any rate. To me, it was a great career. I am thrilled that I had the chance to work here and do the stories I did and to develop relationships with our readers and to help to them bring things to light that needed to be brought to light.