Unprecedented: SF Chron (Sort of) Covers a Chemical Spill

I have a little hobby, tracking how the SF Chronicle covers chemical spills. Usually, it doesn’t cover them at all beyond a simple “when and where” blurb … and not even, usually, the what of it, beyond “chemicals.”

This always kind of honked me off. Why would the Chron never seek to inform its readers more effectively as to what’s been spilled, how it got there, and its potential health impacts?

In fact, I resigned from SFGate.com precisely because it wasn’t deemed of value to create a public health page on the site dedicated to that kind of information.

Fast-forward eight or so years, and, my jaw drops in astonishment: There, on the front page of SFGate.com, is a link to a detailed breakdown of the nature and health impacts of annhydrous ammonia, which, earlier that day, had erupted out of a salami plant in South San Francisco.

So where’s the rub? The coverage of the chemical was by a blogger, not a regular member of the SF Chronicle’s salaried reporting staff.

I’m very glad the Chron has given this platform to bloggers, who are apparently free to post the material they feel is important — and kudos to Doc Gurley for having the foresight to consider that people may want to know what’s spilling into their community, and what it does.

The Chron’s coverage itself, by Henry K. Lee, an otherwise hardworking reporter on the disaster beat, is typical: The time and the place of the spill is duly reported. The name of the chemical is mentioned, as well as its use in refrigeration — a nice change from the old days when euphemisms like “swimming pool chemicals” were used instead of “chlorine.”

We also learn when the salami plant moved to SSF, and that a decontamination facility was set up. But that’s it. You want to know what, exactly, anhydrous ammonia is, how it affects human life, etc., you’re outta luck.

While Gurley’s blog did make up for that grievous omission, that blog is unusual — a bone thrown to the changing media landscape, rather than a meaningful investment by the newspaper as a matter of policy in how it covers its community in print AND online.

It’s a glaring example of exactly how inattentive San Francisco’s major metro daily is, that a freelance blogger — rather than its paid and editorially vetted reporting staff — would nail the important details of a story of considerable interest to the health and well-being of the whole San Francisco Bay Area.

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