Investigative Reports

InvestigateWest's mission is to do in-depth, investigative reports on important topics in the West, especially the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on the environment, health and social justice.

Toxic acid puts millions at risk


CPI's national look at the danger

ConocoPhillips refinery's record in Washington

How Tesoro's Anacortes refinery embodies slipping safety culture of oil industry

How journalists collaborated to bring you this story

For 170,000 people living in and around Bellingham, it’s a distinctly chilling scenario: Something goes horribly wrong at the ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale and over the next 10 minutes 110,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid explodes into a cloud that goes on to burn the lungs of whole neighborhoods or towns, causing widespread shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain and possibly even death.

The ConocoPhillips refinery is the only refinery in Washington using a chemical known as hydrofluoric acid, described by federal health officials as a “highly corrosive . . . serious systemic poison.” The stuff is so toxic that it can harm people up to 14 miles downwind, government records show.  

“You mean the most deadly chemical ever invented?” asked environmental activist Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor. “I’ve worked on refinery issues for 25 years. This has been a major issue for at least that long because it is known as one of the most deadly chemicals ever invented.”

Confirms Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle:  “It’s horrible stuff. It’s some of the worst stuff in the spill-response world.”

Shocking air safety breaches emerge nationwide in data analysis

See related content: NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

By Brant Houston, Investigative News Network; Robert McClure, InvestigateWest; and Kevin Crowe, The Watchdog Institute

A commercial airline pilot en route to San Diego International Airport looks out a window at 10,800 feet and sees a Lockheed S-3 Viking Navy jet coming right at him. 

“The captain quickly pulled up on the control column to avoid hitting the S3,” the co-pilot wrote in a report filed with federal officials. “He turned his head to the right, which made me look out of my window on the right. And the window was full of the S3.” 

The two planes passed within about 100 feet of each other. 

This is just one of thousands of examples of near-misses, bad communications, equipment failures, wildlife hits and sometimes just silly but dangerous errors contained in an aviation safety database collected and analyzed by NASA. 

A six-month examination of more than 150,000 reports filed by pilots and others in the aviation industry over the past 20 years reveals surprising and sometimes shocking safety breaches and close calls at local, regional and major airports throughout the country. 

A consortium of journalists working at six nonprofit investigative centers across the U.S. reviewed the records with Investigative News Network, of which they are members, and National Public Radio. To put the confidential reports into context, the journalists did extensive data analysis of the reports and conducted scores of interviews with pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation safety experts. 


NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

See related content: Aviation safety reports reveal frequent safety problems at airports, in sky

The number of reports filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System is soaring, but the funding for the staff handling the reports is grounded.

“We’re hitting records every day in terms of volume,” said Linda Connell of NASA, director of the system. “We could do more if we had more. … We’ve been flat-funded since 1997.”

Connell said all reports are reviewed within three days by a team of about 10 part-time air-safety experts with decades of combined experience as pilots, controllers and other related jobs.

But only 20 percent of the reports are processed fully – which means contacting the person who filed the report, summarizing it and then posting it in the database available to the public. The rest of the reports are not revealed.

The database amassed by NASA is valuable, air-safety experts say, because it allows air-safety professionals to quickly and confidentially report problems that often are the result of systemic flaws – flaws the system seeks to illuminate.

Connell said pilots, controllers and others are comfortable confessing their flubs to NASA because the agency has no power to punish them, yet is knowledgeable about aeronautics and air safety.                                     

In exchange, the system usually allows a pilot or controller who makes such a report to escape punitive action by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that licenses pilots and controllers.

 Encouraging frank disclosures is a good trade for the lack of prosecution, Connell said.


Court backs strong Washington rules to rein in polluted rainwater runoff

In a ruling with statewide implications that hands a victory to environmentalists, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board rejected a system to control polluted rainwater runoff in Clark County that partially shifted the financial burden from developers to the public.

The board’s multi-pronged 2-1 decision shot down a special deal cut by the Department of Ecology for Clark County, saying Ecology punted on its responsibilities to rein in the fast-growing pollution source, instead allowing the county so much leeway that it amounts to “an impermissible self-regulatory program” when Ecology is supposed to be in charge. The board’s ruling holds that the resulting system violates the federal Clean Water Act and state law.

It’s unclear for now whether the state, Clark County or developers will appeal. The case is focused on rainwater runoff, known as “stormwater,” which is Puget Sound’s largest source of toxic pollutants and is a major factor in the decline of waterways statewide.

The pollution starts when raindrops hit hard surfaces – parking lots, roofs, streets, and so forth. That water coalesces into rivulets that run downhill toward the nearest river, lake, stream or bay, picking up pollution that transforms the water into a bouillabaisse of tainted substances including oil, gas, animal excrement, fertilizers and pesticides.

The board had previously ruled that southwestern Washington's Clark County and a handful of other large cities and counties must begin to require a set of building techniques known as “low impact development” to control the polluted rainwater runoff.

Carol Smith's picture

InvestigateWest's reporting brings health-care worker safety focus in Legislature


Washington legislators plan to push this session to strengthen worker safety protections for health-care workers who handle chemotherapy drugs on the job, and to provide better tracking of cancers that develop from occupational exposures.

On Jan. 17, Sen. Karen Keiser introduced the first of the bills, SB 5149, which would require that the state cancer registry capture occupational data from cancer patients.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, chair of the Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee, has drafted legislation that will create an occupational safety standard for oncology clinics and other places where chemo is used.

Both bills were developed in response to InvestigateWest’s investigation last year exposing the ongoing risk to health-care workers who handle chemotherapy for their jobs. The story appeared on our Web site, and in The Seattle Times, on, and in an investigative report co-produced with KCTS 9 in Seattle.

“Chemotherapy drugs have been classified as hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) since the mid-1980s, yet we still do not have adequate workplace safety protections in place for health-care workers who handle these powerful drugs on a daily basis,” Kohl-Welles said.  “This important legislation addresses the problem by establishing occupational safety standards that are specific to chemo-containing drugs.”

Such a standard, which does not exist at the federal level, would give state regulators the legal authority to crack down on lax safety practices, she said.

School districts struggle to help homeless kids as number grows statewide


School districts around the state are grappling with how to help growing populations of homeless students, even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify and report homeless students and to guarantee those students transportation so they can stay at their original schools even if they have been forced to find emergency shelter outside the district.

Being homeless can affect how children learn, can lead to depression, and can be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities, labels that stick with a child for years.

“The main goal of identifying kids is so they can stay in their school of origin, so they have consistency with their peers, teachers and educational progress,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. That means providing cabs, bus passes, or other means of transportation for kids, even if it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school.

It’s up to individual school districts to squeeze that transportation money from their own budgets. “There is no pot of money for homeless students,” said Dyer. “It’s a big burden for districts.”

In the 2008-09 school year (most recent year for which data available), schools reported 20,780 homeless students statewide, up from 8,141 in the 2003-04 school year.

Of the 10 districts with the highest numbers of homeless students in the state, seven reported increases from 2006-07 to 2008-09. Bellingham, for example, was up 84 percent, Shelton, 39 percent, and Wenatchee, 18 percent.

Help for neighbors in need of shelter


If you’re in need of shelter, basic human services or assistance in Washington state, go to 211 Community Information Line, or call 2-1-1 You can also call: 1-800-621-4636 or 206-461-3200. 


For information about help for homeless families and children:

Wellspring Family Services:

For information about emergency shelter for young adults:

The Landing:


For information about youth aging out of foster care:

Mockingbird Society:

Casey Family Programs:

YMCA Young Adult Services:

For information about ending homelessness:

Building Changes:

The 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in King County:

The Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation:

Generation Homeless: Young adults put new face on old problem


Shelters for young adults in King County are turning people away in record numbers as unemployment escalates and housing costs continue to be out of reach.

This surge in demand for shelter reveals a new face of homelessness, one fueled by the legacy of a failing foster care system and young people stranded by the crack epidemic of the late 1980s.

Tony Torres, 22, managed kidney failure and weekly dialysis treatments while homeless for four years. He recently obtained temporary housing. Photo by Mike Kane/InvestigateWest

Some of those young people are now having families of their own, and without resources, are winding up homeless. Families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. Yet the group driving this trend – young adults ages 18-24 – is generally under-counted and under-represented when solutions are envisioned. Relatively few resources are being directed to prevent them from producing new generations of homeless families.

One of the most disturbing legacies of homelessness is that it can be handed down from parent to child. Children who experience homelessness growing up are more likely to experience it as adults.

Casi Jackson is part of the problem, and part of the solution. At work at a homeless outreach center on Seattle’s Eastside, she shifts her daughter, Tiana, 7 months, on her hip and juggles a cell phone in her other hand while she fields a call from a scared-sounding mom with  no place to sleep tonight. Slender, with long curly hair, and an unflinching manner, Jackson is matter-of-fact on the phone, and sounds older than her 22 years.  She knows what it’s like to be staring down a night without shelter.

Homeless families are typically headed by young women with young children.