The series beginning Sunday in The Buffalo News originated more than a year ago with a memo from a colleague, Andrew Galarneau. He had recently been reassigned from Niagara County to downtown and thought there was more work to do on a story he was leaving behind because of his transfer: the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. His concern: the locals were getting a raw deal.
I've got to admit that the topic of hydropower relicensing made my eyes glaze over and my mind go numb. Hydropower? Relicensing? Gee, you have anything on paint drying?
Then again, I'm a guy who found fascination on the ins and outs of federal block grant programs and state empire zones. I decided to nose around, spend a couple of weeks doing exploratory interviews.
It only took a handful of interviews to get me hooked. This was about more than a relicensing process -- thank goodness -- although the treacherous politics alone made that part of the story intriguing. What really got me jazzed was the potential the power project has long held to help power the regional economy.
How is the plant being used? To whose benefit?
I've spent most of the past five years reporting on economic issues and learned pretty quickly that there are no silver bullets -- as much as the politicians lining up on ribbon-cutting day would have us believe otherwise. But the huge hydropower plant in Lewiston is about as good as it gets -- tons of cheap, renewable electricity in our backyard. Something akin to a bottomless oil field -- only cleaner.
Of course, I didn't know a kilowatt from a kilogram, but half the fun of investigative reporting is starting out knowing squat and mastering a topic. So I plunged in.
This turned out to be the most complex, and, at times, difficult project I've undertaken in my 30 years of reporting.
Complex, just because, well, it's a dense topic.
And difficult because for the longest time I encountered a lot of resistance from the New York Power Authority, which operates the plant, along with 17 other generating facilities around the state.
I was full of questions, and, having spoken with a number of folks critical of the authority, I wanted NYPA's perspective. Senior officials, however, wouldn't make staff members available for interviews, only members of the PR staff.
Instead turned to a reporter's -- and citizen's -- best friend, the state Freedom of Information Law. I filed FOIL after FOIL, seeking answers in documents to what I was unable to get through interviews. I wound up receiving more than 6,500 pages of documents and numerous spreadsheets and databases. The News had to go to considerable legal expense to get some records kicked free.
Of course, the problem with making these requests is that eventually you get the information and have to read it all. But read it I did. You haven't lived until you've read a 376-page report on the socio-economic impacts of hydropower plants.
At the same time, I interviewed. And interviewed. And interviewed.
Lawyers. Consultants. Regulators. Environmentalists. Utility executives. Union leaders. Politicians and their staff, who often know more than the boss. Dozens of local officials involved in the relicensing negotiations. Executives of companies using low-cost hydropower. And, to get an authority perspective, some of its former employees. About 75 people in all, many more than once.
Two things struck me in these interviews.
A lot of people are afraid of the power authority. You don't know how many times people asked to talk on background or off the record for fear of repercussions.
And the most important issues related to the Niagara Power Project -- how its power and profits are used -- weren't addressed during the relicensing process.
I made one last-ditch effort to interview authority officials a few months back and, to my pleasant surprise, it worked. I wound up talking to about 10 staff members, who were knowledgeable and cooperative. It always helps when the subject of an investigation tells its side of the story.
Reporting is only half the battle. Organizing the material and writing the stories is the other half. Part and parcel of that is working with editors to revise stories, develop graphics and see through page proofs.
Reporters in this age also must prepare material to publish on the Web, and that became the final task.
One of the challenges in doing a long-term project is maintaining focus. I was doing fine until I broke my leg is late October, which kept me out of work for one month and in pretty rough shape for another. (An occupational hazard of 51-year-old hockey players.)
The byproduct of my work, and that of my colleagues, will be presented over the next three days. This blog is a companion, as I want to hear from readers, post news updates and engage in a dialogue. It will be all new to me -- and you -- as The News only recently revamped its Web site to allow for this kind of interaction.
Given this region's economic straits, the use of Niagara power and profits needs to be the subject of a very public debate which has been largely sidestepped to this point. While the issues related to federal relicensing are resolved, there is much that can be done through the legislative process at both the federal and state level.
The objective of this series, and this blog, is to help inform and promote that debate. Let's get to it.