Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Is news media obligated to present the truth?

Do we still demand honesty from news media, whether it is in print, television or radio? Can a newspaper, regardless of its size publish an article which omits by intent facts relating to the article, or worse publish a statement that is a lie? As a society we have become jaded in regards to many issues, whether it is a politician's integrity or a newspaper's choice to support one candidate in an election over another. Still whether we pick up a newspaper or turn on the television or radio we expect the truth, even if at times provided with a slant.

In the St. Catharines area, Niagara this Week is a community newspaper with a modest circulation. The pages of Niagara this Week are not filled with news of knitting events or community carnivals, rather it presents news relating to the local area and more. On July 2nd 2012, Niagara this Week published a column by an individual who is not a staff writer nor an experienced or published journalist.  The column first appeared online and then distributed in print July 11th 2012.

Webster's dictionary describes a column as: “a series of feature articles appearing regularly in a newspaper or magazine, by a particular writer or about a certain subject.” This article was on two pages and at the bottom of the article Niagara this Week did not say that these were the views of the writer only, instead they described the writer as a founder and chairman of a non-profit organization, lending greater credibility to the article and its author.

Bullet News Niagara is an online news service published by an experienced individual who had the position as city editor at The Standard newspaper in St. Catharines. On-line news services are a relatively new format of presentation of news in a world where technology is diminishing distance and time. Yet the obligations are no different to that of the press or other more conventional media. As a member of the Ontario Press Council, Bullet News Niagara has the same responsibility to ensure its articles do not distort the truth and do not attempt to deceive the public.

At first glance 'Niagara falling short of goals on dysfunctional urban sprawl' by Bernie Slepkov, was nothing more than any other piece presented in Niagara this Week or Bullet News. Mr. Slepkov speaks in terms of an individual with knowledge, experience and background in relation to the issues raised by him in the article. The author's claim to “having been closely involved with local efforts since 2001” provides an air of authority to the following statements. He uses words such as “infilling,” “intensification” and provides what he calls as “key intents” to community planning and design. One of his points, or “key intents” was “Clean up and give rebirth to contaminated and abandoned industrial sites – called brownfields.”

Community planning is a necessity, as uncontrolled urban sprawl not only has devastating environmental impact but also logistical frustration to any municipality. Abandoned industrial sites are more than an eye-sore for the community, they are an under-used asset that needs to be redeveloped. Yet the redevelopment must be within the strict guidelines set out in the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) and legislation, as often these abandoned sites carry the burden of hazardous contamination requiring clean up.

Contamination was the single most important issue with the brownfields that Bernie Slepkov refers to and comments on. His total lack of understanding of the legislation governing the
criteria under which redevelopment is considered is no excuse for the ludicrous statements made. The land in question has a history as being part of the Domtar Paper Mills industry, at one time an important employer of many and a key to the local community. Yet the paper industry used various hazardous chemicals in its daily routines and at a period in time when environmental laws and understanding were far from maturity as they are today.

Before examining the depth of this article it is important to understand that Bernie Slepkov first lied with his statement, “I assure you that's all from intentional and efforts are afoot to address the shortcomings exposed within the following examples.” Websters Dictionary describes afoot as: “in motion or operation; in progress.” He then proceeds to comment on the developments and he specifically identifies, The Keg, the old Lybster Cotton Mill, the large brownfield site behind The Stone Mill and the new bank building and retail plaza beside The Keg in St. Catharines.

Claiming that something is “afoot” and that coupled with his previous boast, “having been closely involved with local efforts,” indicates knowledge. It can only be a lie! It is not only an absolute lack of understanding of the brownfield legislation, but of engineering and of common sense. Looking at the photos of the developments it is impossible to understand how anything is “afoot to address the shortcomings,” as Slepkov states “A basic smart growth development would have included at least one mid-to-high rise residential unit above the stores.” He continues, “Same thing across the street beside The Keg. The new bank building and the retail plaza wall enclosing a large parking lot should also have included a residential building.” Maybe using Google image search as one's research tool has its shortcomings.

Since these buildings have been completed and retail businesses already in operation it is impossible to imagine how anything can be considered to alter their use. Foundations for these buildings would not be able to accommodate any additional weight nor can any business close its operation for such a fantasy. Worse still as Slepkov identifies these sites as previous brownfields he should of done some research on the contamination identified and the environmental investigations conducted.

Instead Slepkov blunders along the path of ignorance or maybe something more. Each newspaper employs editors who vet each and every article before publishing. How is it possible for the city editor at Niagara this Week to have no knowledge of his local area? The publisher at Bullet News Niagara Mr. Peter Conradi, a former city editor at The Standard newspaper here in St. Catharines, has to have knowledge of what he approved for the front page in the past. No excuse can exist for either to publish deceit of this nature.

Brownfield legislation exists to ensure proper clean up of abandoned industrial land for its intended development and future use. Any plans for residential use of such land would face the strictest criteria for assessment under the EPA. Aside of the super human task of accommodating residential above already completed single storey construction, it would be impossible to comply with the EPA and brownfield legislation requirements.

Slepkov states that “the contamination was removed from the site and the original stone-brick building was transformed into The Keg.” Originally a Toronto developer was interested in redeveloping the site, but Dunvegan Developments and its engineers stated that the building was structurally unsafe and would need to be demolished. Mayor Tim Rigby, St. Catharines mayor at the time, didn't want the building torn down and found local developer Nino
Donatelli and Merritton Mills Redevelopment Corporation.

This is part of the excavation of land for development only some 200 metres from the Keg's kitchen doors.

Preparation for the building of two restaurants adjacent to the Keg. 

The excavation unearthed soil that stopped all work for nearly two weeks. A record of site condition should have identified potential contaminates in the soil prior to beginning an excavation for development. History of this property identified mercury, arsenic, lead and copper as contaminants yet Mr. Slepkov talks of residential to be included here. 

As Kalvin Reid of The Standard reported in July 2004, “The project has also included some environmental clean up when about 7000 tonnes of coal ash was discovered buried under a layer of clay.” Dr. Andy Panko who acted as the environmental consultant on the project said at the time, “But it has been a relatively straight-forward clean up.” (Kalvin Reid The Standard, July 21 2004). Yet in 2007 only a few hundred metres from the restaurant building over 5000 tonnes of heavily contaminated soil was dug up and dumped at Station Road Landfill in Wainfleet by developer Nino Donatelli. This soil was contaminated with mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and Nino Donatelli confirmed the contamination in a CBC News at Six interview on July 3rd 2007.

The building's concrete floor was in tact and no other clean up was conducted at the time. Although concrete appears quite solid as anyone who has been whacked by a piece of concrete and the result of the 'ouch test'. Still physics has proven that everything is only a collection of atoms moving at enormous speed and to add to the theory of atoms it is important to note concrete is a porous substance regardless of the 'ouch test'.

Photographs taken of an excavation for the construction of the retail plaza beside The Keg showed heavily dark soil and water green with a rainbow on the surface which was pumped into the run-off sewer. Independent laboratory tests of the soil samples and water alarming and only a couple of hundred metres from the side kitchen doors of The Keg. This is the same retail plaza that Slepkov says should of had residential housing. “The new bank building and retail plaza wall enclosing a large parking lot should also have included a residential building,” at least Slepkov researched all of this on Google image search.

Across the road next to the now Stone Mill Inn and Johnny Rocco's the property underwent massive excavation. The pit dug so grand that a full size Euclid could not be visible from the road when at ground level at the bottom of the excavation. Although MOE did not divulge the level or type of contaminates after the Record of Site Condition was approved they did say that commercial development was approved. At the time when the Sobey's building had been erected a large hole in the ground behind the building filled with water. The water had a rainbow across the surface, an immediate sign of petroleum effluent present. Most know that if a boater accidentally spills a small amount of petroleum into a lake whilst refilling his or her engine runs the risk of a heavy fine. Yet here pumps and a pump line were brought in, the pump line snaked hundreds of feet into a storm water run-off sewer and the contaminated water pumped for several days. Photographs taken over this period and samples tested at an accredited environmental laboratory were provided. No action taken.

A record of Site Condition is expected to be filed under the EPA Ontario Reg #153/04. The components which form this document are intensive and are designed to protect our future. No part of this process is taken lightly and the information gathered determines the use of land for development. Sections of the Ontario Reg 153/04 are provided here as the full document spans a total of 151 pages. 

As one looks at the development along this stretch of Glendale Avenue and remembers the vacant land it is hard to say that the development looks bad in any way. We need to utilize our resources with our land but within boundaries that protect the future and our environment of the present.

In mid 2006 a huge pit was dug next to The Keg, the excavation was due to heavy metal contaminates in the ground. This pit was approximately 25 feet deep and 50 feet in diameter. Water filled this pit, its base showing yellow soil as puss. Pumps were brought in and a road side storm water catch basin smashed in with sledge hammers and the water pumped. The Ministry of the Environment after two years of investigation said to disregard the test results as the tests were interfered with at the laboratory. Eventually the developer admitted to the pumping claiming he did not know he needed permission to pump into the sewer. An award winning developer, and not internationally acclaimed as Slepkov stated, just locally said he did not know he needed permission. The soil in the excavation pit was contaminated with mercury.

Many of our storm water run-off sewers in St. Catharines flow indirectly into Lake Ontario. How do we ignore the facts and glorify the omission or simply excuse it as ignorance. The editors at Niagara this Week, as the publisher at Bullet News have a responsibility to the public. Our media has a responsibility to the public to present the truth regardless of any political sympathies they harbour.

In the article by Bernie Slepkov the truth was twisted and mangled, the responsibility rests with the publishers of both Niagara this Week and Bullet News. Slepkov's motivation is not known for the wild statement of what is “afoot,” it would be interesting to hear his explanation. Yet those who are trusted by the community to present facts as news have no excuse. Regardless of whether it is a small time newspaper, a community newspaper or a national publication the publishers have a responsibility that cannot be wavered at any time. The publisher and editors of Niagara this Week have failed in their responsibility to the public. A redress is required and an explanation demanded.

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