How investigative reporting stopped a public health disaster

By Dean Kuipers

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – December 31, 2003

June 13, 2002: Collins writes “Earthly Secrets” for LA Weekly, questioning what was in the water and soil of Ahmanson Ranch which is owned by Washington Mutual.

Late June 2002: Residents hold up copies of the Weekly piece at a Ventura County planning meeting demanding tests of the wells intended for use in the Ahmanson Ranch development. A planning commissioner asks county Senior Planner, Dennis Hawkins, if he was going to do tests of groundwater. He says yes. Afterwards, Collins asks him when he decided to do the tests and Hawkins says “About half an hour ago. I couldn’t very well not since your article came out.”

October 5, 2002: Collins and Ventura County Reporter Editor Sharon McKenna first meet at a Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch event near the ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Collins asks director Rob Reiner why his group isn’t talking about pollution possibly emanating from nearby Rocketdyne since Collins was uncovering evidence of chemical and radiological pollution (which he shared with the audience). Reiner obfuscates and Collins suggests that maybe it’s because many of the group’s supporters live near the Ranch and the information might affect their property values.

October 10, 2002: McKenna writes a Reporter article, “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch… Ahmanson foes turn up the heat on Washington Mutual,” and reports on the Reiner/Collins exchange.

Late October, 2002: Hawkins’ tests come back and Well #1, adjacent to the ranch and slated for the development’s irrigation use, comes back positive for the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate at 28 parts per billion, 14 times over what California considers safe for drinking water.

December 12, 2002: Reporter cover story “Rocketdyne Ranch,” written by Collins, comes out during Ventura County Board of Supervisors’ final hearings on the Ahmanson project. The piece is repeatedly introduced as evidence. Washington Mutual folks at the hearings are furious. Board votes 4-1 to approve project anyway.

December 19, 2002: A Reporter news feature, “Rocketdyne: It’s the Pits,” describes a raucous Rocketdyne community meeting and how Collins was allowed into a Rocketdyne inspection of a decommissioned nuclear reactor. There, with his own radiation monitor, Collins finds the hottest spot in the place that three other inspections had previously missed.

December 26, 2002: Timothy McGarry, a VP of corporate communications for Washington Mutual, writes in a letter to the Reporter: “The story ‘Rocketdyne Ranch’ is an outrageous hatchet job, one built almost entirely on deceptive editing and omission of fact…Collins and his bosses – Reporter editor Sharon McKenna and publisher David Comden – should be ashamed of themselves for having to resort to editorial sleight of hand and glaring omissions to make their argument. In their fervor to assist those opposed to the Ahmanson Ranch development project, they make a mockery of responsible journalism and show contempt for both their readers and the truth.” Collins responds to the letter’s inaccuracies point by point.

Dec 26, 2002: A Reporter Q&A with Tim McGarry, “Don’t Bank on It,” having to do with litigation over Ahmanson Ranch, followed in mid-Jan 2003 with another Reporter piece on mounting litigation entitled “Suited Up.”

Early February 2003: The Reporter publishes “Air Apparent” having to do with the volatile rocket engine solvent Trichloroethylene that vaporizes up through the soil and concentrates in homes and structures at alarming levels. Makes perchlorate look like Kool-Aid and again calls into question the wisdom of building the ranch project.

June 12, 2003:Blinded by Science” is the debut cover of ValleyBeat, co-written by Collins and McKenna. Includes chronology of Rocketdyne investigation.

June 21, 2003: Collins wins first place at the Greater Los Angeles Press Club’s 45th Southern California Journalism Awards for “Investigative/Series” for “Rocketdyne Ranch” and the other 2002 pieces in the Reporter.

July 3, 2003:The Sins of Rocketdyne” cover in both ValleyBeat and CityBeat. Includes sidebar of contact information for reader reference.

July 10, 2003:The Feeling is Mutual” news feature by in ValleyBeat shows the beginning of the end for the Ranch, crediting Collins’ coverage.

August 18, 2003: Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks awards Collins an official commendation from the County Board of Supervisors.

Sept 18, 2003:Recall Ranch” news feature in ValleyBeat details surprise development of state offer to purchase Ahmanson Ranch.

October 1, 2003: Collins attends an invitation-only ceremony at the ranch where Gov. Davis announces it as new park. Afterwards, Reiner’s first words to Collins are: “Wow! That perchlorate stuff really got them! Ever since you stood up at Taft High School and started talking about it!”

Nov 14, 2003: The State closes escrow on the ranch, bought for $150 million. According to the Los Angeles Times, “No park purchase in Ventura or Los Angeles counties has been larger in either land area or cost.”

Dec 1, 2003: Ahmanson Ranch opens as a park administered by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.