The Seattle Times sinks a local polluter

Investigating the sketchy background of a capsized ship's owner

Most business investigations focus on corporations and investors. And for good reason: They’re the ones with the money and the power.

But sometimes a small business owner can have an outsized impact too. Here in Seattle three weeks ago, a boat moored off Whidbey Island caught fire and sank, spilling thousands of gallons of fuel, shutting down shellfish harvesting in the area, and costing the government millions of dollars.

It’s one of those stories that The Seattle Times could have covered with fill-in-the-blanks news pieces on the incident and just rewritten the authorities’ press releases on whether anyone was responsible.

Instead, the paper dug into the story, reporting on the owner of the decrepit boat—who turns out to be a sort of jackass of all trades. This is the kind of investigation metro journalists should be doing: It’s got local color, a good yarn, and accountability journalism all in one, and it’s on the news. Plus, the story actually has a voice.

See the top:

Rory Westmoreland is a tough man to track down.

When you do find him, though, you’ll likely hear about his string of “bad luck.” How he has to “work really hard just to get by.” How he is “not a wealthy person.” The story will unfold slowly, his deep drawl ambling along until he gets to the question at hand.

It’s about a boat. His boat. The rotting hulk that caught fire and sank in Penn Cove three weeks ago.

At first, he will complain about the government agencies dogging him, asking questions, assessing fines, even making accusations in the media. There’s the Coast Guard, the state departments of Ecology, Natural Resources, and Health…

The thing is, it wasn’t his fault, he says. Not his fault at all.

No newspaper-ese there.

It turns out that Westmoreland bought the 140-foot “rotting hulk” for $2,500 a while back and moored it in a cove sometime last year. You only get 30 days to moor in state waters, the Times says, but the boat sat there, racking up minor fines, for at least six months before it sunk.

All told, the agency says, it contacted Westmoreland at least 17 times over five months. It contemplated taking possession of the Deep Sea using the Derelict Vessel Removal Program, but knew its disposal could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And besides, there were boats in worse shape that were higher on the priority list.

Now the cost to the state is estimated at $2.6 million and more than a million shellfish in Penn Cove haven’t been harvested because of the pollution.

None of this should come as a surprise to the folks who know Westmoreland, as the Times’s reporting shows. It finds that Westmoreland is the neighbor from hell, a guy who runs what’s effectively an “unlicensed scrap yard,” pollutes the environment, reneges on deals, and always seems to stay one step ahead of the law.

That extra reporting turns an interesting story into a very good one, broadening it into one about how relatively small-time offenders, even serial ones, can slip through the regulatory cracks—even when they’re turning the lake blue with barrels of concentrated toilet cleaner. And it makes the pressure to do something about the culprit here that much greater.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,