Second in a series.
Vaughn Hagerty was Trista Talton’s editor during her last year and a half as a reporter at the Wilmington StarNews.
You have to wonder how much longer Chemours would have gotten away with discharging unregulated contaminants into the Cape Fear River if he did not break the story.
What if Vaughn Hagerty hadn’t had the luxury of time usually lacking in bare-bones-staffed newsrooms fighting for survival in this age of social media and the 24-hour television news cycle?
What if he had missed the story by one fewer clicks of the mouse?
Would we have yet heard the now all-too-familiar term GenX?
Would tens of thousands of residents of the Cape Fear region be made aware that Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant had for decades been releasing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, into their drinking water source, the air, and ground?
The story behind the story that ran five years ago Tuesday and ripped back the curtain on synthetic chemical waste being released into the Cape Fear River is about one man’s career that, like the river itself, features a series of twists and turns guiding the water to its destination.
A little too corny? Hey, Hagerty himself recently told Coastal Review that he was living a “charmed life.”
Just another web developer ‘Googling around’
The news editor turned media web developer turned editor again turned back again to web developer had been dabbling as a freelance journalist a few months when, browsing websites in the spring of 2017, he came across something called the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.
“It was entirely by chance,” said Hagerty.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, implements the rule every five years to gather data on unregulated contaminants by sampling water utilities throughout the country.
One particular set of data that focused on legacy PFAS caught Hagerty’s attention.
Armed with his curious-by-nature journalistic instinct and background as a web developer, he loaded the data to see what would pop up for the Wilmington area. There were some local hits, enough that might make for interesting story, he thought.
He continued to “Google around,” eventually coming across a paper written by North Carolina university-based professors about legacy and emerging perfluoroalkyl substances, including one called GenX, contaminating drinking water in the Cape Fear River watershed
“At that point I knew I had probably a much better story than just this story that, ‘Hey, there’s a little bit of PFOA and PFAS in the water,’ and that’s when I started focusing on the story,” Hagerty said.
He knew nothing about the complexities of which he was to write. If memory serves, he earned a C in college chemistry.
Like any true-grit journalist, Hagerty used what he could to his advantage – people in the know and time.
“I’m definitely pretty persistent and some people might say a little obsessive,” he said. “But, also I was fortunate during this time to have access to a number of very smart and knowledgeable people who were very generous with their time and patient with my complete ignorance of this incredibly complicated topic. I think that what I had that very few other journalists had — or even have — is I could spend as much time as I needed really diving into the story without having to worry about things like covering the school board or meeting my tweet quota.”
He pitched the story early on to the Wilmington StarNews, the daily newspaper for which he’d freelanced some stories in early 2017. It’s also the paper Hagerty, as metro editor, managed the newsroom’s day-to-day operations – assigning reporters stories, editing stories and deciding what stories went where – for three years starting back in 2005.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, or CFPUA, in Wilmington and other utilities that supply drinking water to residents in New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick and Columbus counties were, in particular, affected by the story about a company discharging toxins into the river.
“It really seemed like the StarNews was going to be the best place for me to do the first story,” Hagerty said.
A chance conversation in a gym
“Toxin taints CFPUA drinking water” ran front page Wednesday, June 7, 2017.
Five years before, Hagerty was working in web development for the paper when he was laid off.
He did pretty well as a freelance web developer after that, but he missed journalism.
Hagerty had continued reporting on PFAS, GenX and Chemours through 2018, including for Coastal Review.
“But, the thing is, it’s very difficult to make a decent living as a freelance journalist or a journalist in general sometimes,” he said. “So, as a result, I’d eaten into a lot of savings. A whole lot. I’d already started thinking that I was probably going to need to get a full-time job.”
Where, he did not know.
Then, call it happenstance, maybe fate, a health-conscious Hagerty was working out at a local gym when fellow gym member and CFPUA’s then-executive director Jim Flechtner offhandedly asked Hagerty if he knew anyone who might be interested in applying for the job of public information officer for the authority.
“The more I thought about it, it just seemed like the perfect transition for me that would not only allow me to get a full-time job, but also to continue really being pretty engaged in the story going forward,” Hagerty said.
He got the job, a move that made local news and spurred some negative reaction on social media. The latter frustrated him.
People who didn’t know him were calling his integrity into question, insinuating bribery landed him the job he started in January 2019.
“If you go back and look at the stories I wrote, I think you’ll see that I wasn’t ever critical of CFPUA,” he said. “What did CFPUA know at the time about this stuff at which pretty much nobody knows anything is in the water? I came to CFPUA knowing full well what this organization is and who the staff are and I know that they are focused really, truly on doing what’s best for this community, and that was important to me.”
Hagerty is now the authority’s director of communications.
The journalist and the web developer
Hagerty’s reaction when he first learned contaminants were being discharged into the Cape Fear River was likely similar to that of those who read that first story about what was in their drinking water source.
“Shock, exasperation, frustration. I think the thing for many people that continues to be so frustrating is the lack of information about the health risks for all but really a tiny fraction of the thousands of PFAS compounds, particularly when what’s known about those few is generally sort of troubling. Researchers are beginning to add to that knowledge, but I think it’s still a pretty steep climb. I’m pretty sure I have some level of PFAS in my body like about 98% of the world. I assume that that’s a fact.”
Hagerty continues to comb through the latest documents, discussing their content with coworkers in a place that 10 years earlier when he was metro editor at the StarNews, he would never have guessed he’d be working.
He’s called Wilmington home since taking that position in May 2005, leaving the West Coast where he worked as a web developer at a magazine in Santa Barbara, California.
By then he’d gone from editor early in his career, which began at a little weekly in San Antonio, Texas, to his first “real” job in journalism as an editorial assistant at the San Antonio Light, to assistant city editor, then city editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
A one-line email from his executive editor at the Caller-Times shifted slightly his career path.
“All it said was, ‘What’s the delay in getting us on the Internet?’ I remember that word for word,” Hagerty said.
That question spurred him to learn web design and a number of programming languages. He eventually became a web developer, mainly for media companies, including the Miami Herald.
“I would say that I have lived, in general, what some people might call a charmed life, but some of that, I think, is being presented opportunities and then recognizing those opportunities and then acting on them,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate in my life that that has happened enough times, whether it’s an editor saying what’s the delay in getting us on the internet and just happen to meet some guy at the local university to help me learn programming languages and then ending up at the Miami Herald. That’s sort of charmed, right?”
Later in the series: What is being done?