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Covering a Different Kind of Homicide

Last Sunday afternoon, I stood on the Main Street bridge peering down into the Santa Ana River.

As an environmental reporter, I have chronicled this river’s long legacy of pollution and traveled its 100-mile course. But this time, it was a vastly different type of urban blight I was seeing.

Murder.

I was designated police reporter for the day, and an unidentified man had been killed, his body dumped in the river and hidden under thick brush. The area was sealed off by yellow police tape, and Santa Ana detectives were scouring the dry riverbed for clues. I asked the usual questions and scribbled some notes.

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On the way back to The Times office in Costa Mesa, I thought about how rarely I cross a police line these days. In fact, the last time was in 1990 when that yellow tape was strung along 15 miles of Orange County beaches. It was a crime of a different sort--400,000 gallons of crude oil spilled off Huntington Beach.

Earlier in my career, I chased firetrucks and squad cars. I saw my share of dead bodies as have most of my colleagues. Now, with environmental writing, there are rarely bodies--at least usually not human ones. I chase more environmental-impact reports than ambulances. And when I call prosecutors or cops or firefighters, it’s because toxic chemicals have been dumped, not body parts.

Sometimes I long for the “just the facts ma’am” style of reporting. The reassuring certainty of who, what, when, where and why. Environmental issues are murky, clouded with scientific uncertainty and polarized by extremism on both sides. Nothing is black or white. Only shades of green. And most of the issues I write about will have no resolution, at least not in my lifetime. “Case closed” just isn’t a reality for most of the subjects I cover.

Even under the most optimistic scenarios, unhealthy air and Superfund sites and the hole in the ozone layer and endangered wildlife and the garbage crisis will be around to write about for quite some time. None of the solutions are easy. Change is painful and costly when it comes to such complex problems, and the environmental clock ticks slowly.

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I’ve often joked that I could fall asleep at my desk for 20 years, and when I awakened, the Environmental Protection Agency would still be debating how to clean up the McColl dump in Fullerton.

So when I work an occasional night or weekend covering police--as all Times Orange County reporters do--the murder and mayhem is like a dose of reality. I have spent so much time over the past six years with environmentalists and business people and regulators and scientists discussing the fine points of wildlife and toxic waste and ground water, that I almost forget people are being blown away every night or so in Santa Ana or Buena Park or Anaheim.

For many people, making the Earth safe doesn’t translate into Save the Whales or Clean the Air, but simply the freedom to walk through their neighborhood without dodging gunfire.

But which is more of a threat to society? A bullet hole in the head or a hole in the ozone layer? Or is it the same thing in the end?

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With global pollution, all life might end. Without air safe to breathe, people die from lung disease. And with no resources, the world could lose its lifeblood, as well as the beauty that makes life worth living. Call it subtle homicide. Or maybe it’s really suicide.

As I stood at the Santa Ana murder scene, gazing down into the dry river filled with brush and debris, my mind started to wander. One police officer had called the river a “ditch,” and I was tempted to tell him that a century ago steelhead trout sometimes swam up this course from the coast toward the mountains.

Guess you can take this reporter out of her environment, but you can never really take the environment out of this reporter.


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