Sara Stewart: What I Learned Working with The Hatch Institute

Published March 09, 2018 | 5 min read

After working as a full-time entertainment reporter for many years at the New York Post, then leaving to freelance and dividing my time between the city and a small town in western Pennsylvania, where my husband is a professor, I had the opportunity to write the most in-depth story of my career for the Contently Foundation, now known as The Hatch Institute.

My investigation of the fight to stop a fracking company from dumping its wastewater in nearby Grant, PA, began with a tip from a friend who works at a local law firm. I decided to stop in at a public hearing on the project, where I learned of the brewing legal battle and the ire of the township’s residents.

I contacted Brad Hamilton, the foundation’s editor-in-chief, as we had worked together at the Post years ago, and we agreed that this could develop into a story with significant public interest and, possibly, national implications.

As a veteran reporter, I was accustomed to seeking out sources and gathering basic information. But Brad encouraged me to dig through the hundreds of pages of legal documents on the case and steep myself in how it was playing out in the courts. He stressed the need to add context to this conflict, so I plunged into the accident-plagued history of wastewater injection, learning through documents and studies that it was widely believed to cause earthquakes and threaten the safety of drinking water.

The sheer number of interviews required was new to me: lawyers, industry experts, state and federal authorities, environmentalists, and residents near the proposed injection site. It took months of work.

I also came to appreciate the importance of ferreting out personal details to bring to life the central players in this saga, and with Brad’s encouragement I spent many invaluable hours with the mother-and-daughter team leading the town’s anti-fracking resistance, hearing about their family’s deep connections to the township and their unlikely path to eco-activism. As he said to me often, it’s sometimes hard to get readers to care about an issue. But it’s easy for them to care about the people being affected.

The foundation provided free access to the LexisNexis archives, and in using them for my research we uncovered unique elements of what Grant was attempting — and the fracking company’s long history of complaints and violations. We also came across a small but fascinating detail about that firm’s reclusive CEO: his love for antique trains, which includes his owning an actual locomotive, which he drives through the woods on a track around his home.

Brad’s commitment to the story meant I could concentrate on reporting it, without worrying about trying to convince another publication to take a chance on me, a newcomer to long-form enterprise journalism.

The end result shone a light on a fascinating David-and-Goliath showdown in this remote and under-covered area. For me, it also brought an usual level of national attention. My piece, published simultaneously by the Contently Foundation and the Huffington Post, was widely cited on social media, including by actor and noted anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo. Five weeks after it appeared, Rolling Stone published its own version of the story.

“Frack Off!” is one of my favorite stories I’ve written, and has absolutely inspired me to pursue other investigative projects.

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