It was this story that changed my vision of the newspaper from a business opportunity to a vehicle for social change.”
—Stewart Sallo, publisher/owner, Boulder Weekly.
“Cover up” was current BW editor Joel Dyer’s first investigative article for the paper. Dyer returned to the editor’s chair at Boulder Weekly in 2011 after a 14-year hiatus in which he wrote several nonfiction books on subjects such as domestic terrorism and the U.S. prison system along with writing for such publications as Vanity Fair, New York Times, Mother Jones and U.S. News & World Report.
But back in 1994, Dyer was BW’s staff photographer. Though officially only a freelancer at the time, Dyer’s revelations regarding Syntex would shape Boulder Weekly’s future by setting it firmly on the path of investigative, long-form journalism, which has become the trademark of the paper for which it is recognized nationally.
“Cover up” involved Syntex Chemicals, a Boulder-based pharmaceutical plant that ranked among the worst polluters in the state. In 1988, Syntex confessed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the company had discovered groundwater contamination beneath the plant a year and a half earlier. This voluntary disclosure meant that the company wouldn’t likely be fined for its contamination. While it might have seemed that Syntex was a company doing its best to come clean, Dyer dug beneath the surface, and an altogether different picture emerged.
A letter from a whistleblower, written by a former Syntex employee to the EPA, claimed Syntex had known about the groundwater contamination as early as 1982, a full six years before notifying authorities, and that the company had actively tried to cover it up. Whistleblower Richard Hughes, who had worked as an environmental chemist for the pharma-giant, claimed he witnessed several leaks at the plant in 1982 and his subsequent groundwater testing revealed the presence of toxic chemicals. Hughes said he had recorded his findings in a laboratory notebook, which was allegedly signed by Hughes’ superiors to confirm accuracy. Oddly, the notebook had vanished — together with company documents that would have revealed exactly when officials at Syntex knew about the pollution.
“As with many good stories, this one started with a whistleblower,” Dyer says. “After a month-long investigation I was able to confirm my source’s belief that the groundwater contamination from the plant was winding up in Boulder Creek and that the spills causing the contamination had not been properly reported to the EPA.
“But my favorite part of this story,” recalls Dyer, “was when Syntex suddenly started running the same full-page ‘We’re your good neighbor’ ads in Boulder Weekly that they had been running every weekend in the Daily Camera forever. They booked their first full-page ad within 24 hours of my contacting them with questions about the cover up and spill. It was clear they thought that by throwing a lot of money at a small upstart publication that the story would get killed. And believe me, we needed the money back then. But when I went in to the publisher’s office to fight for the story, he just laughed. He realized that if we hadn’t been getting ready to nail them, they never would have given us a dime in the first place. So at least we got something for our trouble.
“It also was a great lesson for all of us back then about how major corporations use their ad dollars to avoid media scrutiny,” adds Dyer. “I mean, come on. Did a huge multinational corporation really need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the tiny Boulder market to remind us that they are our ‘good neighbor,’ whatever that means? I don’t think so. They were just trying to encourage the local newsrooms not to look too closely at what was coming out of their smokestacks or why they were quietly installing groundwater-monitoring wells on the edge of Boulder Creek.”
Syntex pulled their ads out of the Weekly the same day this story came out. So everybody in Boulder had to read the other paper to find out that one of the state’s largest polluters was still their good neighbor.
Dyer became the Weekly’s editor 12 months later.