UNC-TV blocks distribution of ‘NC Now’ episodes and documentary about Alcoa’s operations on the Yadkin

by Keith Barber

UNC-TV senior legislative correspondent Eszter Vajda (left) interviews Alcoa spokesman Gene Ellis outside the Badin Works aluminum smelting plant in Stanly County as part of Vajda’s documentary, The Alcoa Story. UNC-TV management is currently under fire for turning over all of Vajda’s footage to the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee. (courtesy photo)

Stanly County Manager Andy Lucas isn’t one to give up easily. Lucas has started a letter writing campaign to ask UNC-TV’s board of trustees to reconsider the public broadcasting station’s decision to deny a request from Stanly County to rebroadcast three episodes of “NC Now” and The Alcoa Story — a documentary dealing with aluminum giant Alcoa’s efforts to re-license the water rights to a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River. Lucas said the county wishes to rebroadcast the episodes, which aired July 6-8, and the 53-minute documentary via its public access channel.

“It’s been disconcerting on our end,” Lucas said. “One of the things we’re charged with protecting is public health, and there were a lot of reports that [UNC-TV senior legislative correspondent] Eszter [Vajda] brought to light — accusations about public health concerns, and our public should be made aware of that so they can ask questions.”

Stanly County is the home of Alcoa’s Badin Works aluminum smelting operation, which operated on Badin Lake for more than 90 years before closing in 2007.

Lucas said Stanly County is also working with lawyers to determine if the county’s public access channel has the right to rebroadcast a public record — specifically, Vajda’s documentary, which was shown to the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee on July 6.

The documentary reveals alleged environmental violations by Alcoa’s Badin Works facility, and “a disturbing pattern that Alcoa has knowingly contaminated the water, fish and people in the surrounding communities,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks.

“It identifies cyanide and arsenic plumes detected in Alcoa groundwater monitoring wells, as well as entering Badin Lake. It also reveals contamination from PCBs and PAHs also resulting from Alcoa’s toxic operations.”

Lucas said he contacted Galen Black, UNC-TV’s executive producer of internal productions, regarding licensing the NC Now segments and The Alcoa Story documentary to Stanly County for rebroadcast last month, but Black never got back to him. Lucas then turned to Michael Taylor, president of Stanly Community College. Taylor made a formal request on behalf of the community college, which operates the local access channel, to rebroadcast the “NC Now” episodes and the documentary film, but his request was denied.

Steve Volstad, UNC-TV’s director of communications and marketing, said UNC-TV executive Bob Royster informed Taylor that “the reports are not available for rebroadcast at this time.” Volstad characterized Lucas’ failed attempts to get an answer from Black as a misunderstanding.

“Regarding the reports themselves, I’m sure you are aware of the criticism that they have received from within the journalistic community,” Volstad said, referring to a review of the three “NC Now” segments conducted by the UNC School of Journalism. “And given the fact that as ‘point of view’ pieces they are not representative of the normal content of North Carolina Now, UNC-TV has concluded that it is no longer appropriate to distribute them.”

Last week, Alcoa released a draft memorandum prepared by a panel of three professors from the UNC School of Journalism & Mass Communication regarding the three-part series on Alcoa’s operations on the Yadkin River. The panel’s review was limited to a viewing of the three “NC Now” pieces on Alcoa.

Tom Howe, director and general manager of UNC-TV, originated the request for the review, but later asked the panel to postpone its study. On July 13, Howe postponed the critique “to allow time for a full review of the broader situation,” according to a UNC-TV press release. As a result, the draft memorandum was never issued.

“However, given the unfounded and damaging claims about Alcoa contained in the UNC-TV report, we believe it is important that the entire report be made public,” Alcoa said in a statement.

In the journalism school review, the panel harshly criticizes UNC-TV management’s decision to exercise no editorial control over the “NC Now” pieces prior to airing, as well as purported holes in Vajda’s reporting.

The panel said they would not have accepted the “NC Now” pieces for broadcast, and concluded there was “a breakdown in the editorial process at UNC-TV — as well as the establishment of an unfortunate precedent — when management abdicated its responsibilities and allowed the reporter to control the final work product,” the report states.

The panel’s report says UNC-TV management’s “ill-advised” decision to relinquish editorial control tarnished the reputation of the public broadcasting station and the result was the presentation of a series of stories “proffering an apparent point of view unsupported by the facts.”

In a press release, UNC-TV defended its actions, stating: “An editorial review and the resulting changes that would have been dictated by such a review would have prevented these North Carolina Now reports from airing in a timely way and precluded the public from having immediate access to the information, provoking additional allegations that UNC-TV was suppressing the story.”

Martin Sansone, the researcher/producer of the “NC Now” pieces and The Alcoa Story documentary, said by and large, he agreed with the panel’s assessment, but there is more to the story.

“Eszter said from the beginning of March to management that the story needed to be in a longer format than what is possible on ‘NC Now,’” Sansone said. “UNC-TV correspondence between management and Eszter will confirm that this was an ongoing dialogue concerning the story length and content for some time.”

Sansone explained that UNC-TV management pulled Vajda off producing UNC-TV’s “Legislative Week in Review” one week before the “NC Now” segments aired and told her to cull footage from the more than 200 hours of videotape she had shot and quickly edit together three segments on the Alcoa controversy. The three segments had a cumulative length of just over 35 minutes.

“[Vajda] said to the management again that she wasn’t ready with the story to ensure the ‘NC Now’ pieces would work and telling the story in three short pieces would be extremely difficult,” Sansone said.

The panel’s findings included criticisms of “holes” in Vajda’s reporting, including her failure to present evidence that Alcoa’s Badin Works facility has ever been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for violations. The panel asks why Vajda did not seek out these public records or interview a representative from the EPA.

Sansone said that in their research, he and Vajda uncovered information revealing that Alcoa has been cited for numerous environmental violations at its other facilities in the US, and they were awaiting detailed reports from the EPA on the Badin Works facility when UNC-TV instructed Vajda to edit together the “NC Now” segments.

Sansone said he discovered a number of citations of the Badin Works facility were issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, before 2002, when the company curtailed its operations.

Given the allegations of Alcoa’s poor environmental stewardship included in the “NC Now” segments, the panel questioned why Vajda did not interview a representative from the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or NC DENR. They also asked why NC DENR issued a 401 water quality certification for Alcoa if Vajda’s claims are true.

Diana Kees, communications director for NC DENR, said “DENR has conducted interviews with Ms. Vajda and continues to work with her.”

Sansone said discussions with NC DENR representatives were ongoing at the time of broadcast, and points out that the issuance of water quality certification does not mean Alcoa was given a clean bill of health. NC DENR stipulated a number of concerns in the document even though Alcoa ceased operations in 2007. The certification includes documentation of discharge problems across Alcoa’s assets into tributaries, lake and groundwater seepage.

“It was an error not to include permit details within the programming,” Sansone said. “We were struggling to filter the enormous quantity of material by just two persons and were still waiting for other facts as mentioned by review from DENR themselves.”

The panel also criticized Vajda for relying to heavily on Mona Lisa Wallace, an attorney who has represented former Alcoa employees in lawsuits against the aluminum giant.

Sansone admits that the second installment in the series focused too much on Wallace and Alcoa spokesman Gene Ellis.

“Again, within such a short program time frame to get an aspect of the story across, we admit it didn’t work as well as the longer documentary version where the lawyer’s share of time is no greater than many other sections of the story,” Sansone said.

The UNC panel’s criticisms notwithstanding, Alcoa spokesman Mike Belwood did not deny Vajda’s allegations about Alcoa’s environmental contamination of Badin Lake and the Yadkin River. Belwood only disputed Vajda’s claims that Alcoa is a trilliondollar-a-year company and that the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project could be purchased by the state for as little as $16 million.

“Our position is that the value of that property could approach $500 million or more,” Belwood said. “It’s that kind of reporting that set the tone for the whole piece.”

Even if the “NC Now” segments and The Alcoa Story remain in “rough cut” form, Lucas still believes the distribution of the materials to all residents of Stanly County is vital.

“What impacts are the byproducts of the aluminum smelting process having on Stanly County?” asked Lucas. “Stanly County has the highest arsenic levels of any county in the state. We want the state to investigate and we’re getting frustrated.”