Pipelines and presidents

And so much more.

It’s been a busy summer at the News Tribune, with an especially insane news cycle between the Grandma’s Marathon weekend (I finished my first half!) the president visiting and the PUC approving the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline.

And can we talk about that crazy housing market?

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Sarah Hakel scrutinizes the ceiling in the master bedroom of a home in Cloquet she and her partner Tyler Franzen (right) look over with Edina Realty agent Chad Watczak on Thursday. The couple toured a dozen homes in the area at a time when dozens more are doing the same, driving up prices and frustrations in the housing market. Bob King photo.

But let’s go back to the explosion at the Husky oil refinery in April.

In the aftermath of the fires that sent an ominous cloud of black smoke south of Lake Superior well into the evening, I investigated just how close a call it was: Hydrogen fluoride, if released into the atmosphere, could have sickened or even killed thousands. There are alternatives, but Husky would be a trailblazer if it stopped using the chemical.

I also found that while hydrogen fluoride is the greatest chemical risk in the region, it isn’t the only one. I made the map below to demonstrate:

Then there was President Trump coming to Duluth to stump for 8th Congressional District hopeful Pete Stauber in June. Since a Republican has won the district just once in the past 70 years, I asked a few experts: Why visit Duluth?

During the event, Jimmy Lovrien and I followed the protests, which were largely peaceful.

The week after that, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline at an emotional meeting in St. Paul that Jimmy and I covered. With protests planned and more permits yet to secure, there will still be plenty to write about.

Elsewhere, I’ve kicked off a series on the workforce of the future, with a look at declining teen employment rates and an increase in career changes. Those included side stories on apprenticeships and two-year degrees and automation preparedness.

More recently, John Lundy and I took a look at Minnesotans increasingly drinking themselves to death, and I offered our recently arrived batch of students a bit of advice for getting their rental deposits back.

Big thanks to the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program, a week of training at CUNY in July that left me hungry and well-prepared for big fiscal stories. I jumped right on Duluth’s budget resilience and dug through state pension fund holdings. More to come, as ever.

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New year, new me

Well, new job title.

Jana Hollingsworth and I now comprise the Duluth News Tribune’s investigative reporting team, and I can’t thank my editors enough for the opportunity to focus on the biggest and best stories our readers deserve.

Right to it then —

It’s no secret that good day care is increasingly hard to come by, in Minnesota or elsewhere. But the reason so many providers are leaving the business? Cindy Giuliani decided to take a stand by contacting me and telling of a hostile work environment between licensors and providers, offering a window into a profession rarely seen as such.

For this story written by Peter Passi I contributed some data handiwork that also led to an interactive map. Nearly $149 million could be locked up in special tax districts in Duluth over the next few decades, starving county, city and school coffers of much-needed revenue. But could those taxpaying developments exist if not for this incentive?

My first story of 2018 was on the Year of the Woman, a local look at the national echo of 1992, and the top story of 2017 was our chasing of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline debate.

Though it wasn’t my job title until recently, I certainly took an investigative approach to my work on the business beat, as seen in this piece on a golf course fallen on hard times or a look at what local elected officials (should?) make.

An employee climbs up to the cockpit of a crane at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth Tuesday afternoon. IPS Cranes rebuilds railroad cranes from the ground up at its Duluth facility. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

On the more business-y side of things, I wrote about the fierce digital embrace and defense of brick-and-mortar happening at Maurices, a local locomotive crane shop, some rare new housing in Duluth and a look at exactly what five people must consider when deciding whether to approve or deny Line 3.

And then apparently people my age (I’m still young, right?) are managing financial planning offices. One of my best profiles to date.

Oh, and I got to write about soccer. Go Loons.

Summer in the City

And the news is hot. Kind of like our real estate market, which is causing some unhappiness up yonder.

Deeper problems lie within the rental market, however, as Duluthians of all income levels are often stuck paying too much, searching too long or settling too fast for a limited supply of often lower-quality rentals.

Don’t get too down on Duluth, though — just take a look at the coffee culture we’re brewing, or the incredible spirit of our entrepreneurs, or these big power plant plans coming from the electric utility.

Then there are plans that should have been laid more carefully, like those that led to the desecration of Fond du Lac graves.

My continuing coverage of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline has included the requisite public hearing, a scoop out of financial statements and a profile of a local company that stands to benefit if the massive project is approved by the state. More to come on that front, of course.

Finally, I’m pleased to share I took first place in the Minnesota SPJ Best Beat Reporting category after submitting the manufacturing series I wrote last fall. Just grateful I get to tell these stories at all.

Clickbait for the mildly concerned

Whether you want that oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver buried or built tomorrow, it was an exciting week.

First, we find out the companies behind the terminal are looking for some changes to their lease. Then the port’s staff comes out against it. Tuesday sees a daylong public hearing on the lease amendment (for which an editor told me I took home the Iron Ass Award). And on Friday, the port’s three commissioners could throw the three-year process to build the country’s largest oil-by-rail terminal into question.

Neat, huh?

Many readers are of course more interested in results, not the process (I’m a fan of both). So when something started happening at the port’s waterfront property, they took notice.

The old waterfront restaurant at the shuttered Red Lion hotel in Vancouver already looks miles different as a well-known local restrauteur prepares his new throwback vision for the upcoming Warehouse '23. Photo by Natalie Behring.
The old waterfront restaurant at the shuttered Red Lion hotel in Vancouver already looks miles different as a well-known local restrauteur prepares his new throwback vision for the upcoming Warehouse ’23. Photo by Natalie Behring.

I try not to write solely about the port — there is so much more to the economy of Vancouver and Clark County — but potential open meetings law violations are nothing to ignore.

Other recent stories include a look at the tepid recovery of manufacturing jobs, the 25-year-rise of Betsy Henning and how so few of Washington state’s big energy projects have escaped the permitting process alive.

And of course, don’t miss my column about malls, where I channel my childhood, Joan Didion and Taylor Swift.

Stay tuned for more, soon. The news never stops, and neither will I.

Calm Waters and Sunny Skies

Along the Columbia River in a nondescript warehouse sit a few unfinished yachts that will likely fetch about $35 million each. When I looked upon them and stood among workers of a dozen trades building the behemoths by hand, I thought yet again about what a great job I have.

Employees of Christensen Shipyards work aboard a megayacht under construction in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Cowan.
Employees of Christensen Shipyards work aboard a megayacht under construction in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Cowan.

After years of struggles, Vancouver’s luxury yacht builder Christensen Shipyards is emerging from the depths of debt and litigation. Or so the story goes.

It was a busy and productive first month on the business desk, which saw me flinging stories about everything from the Sunday cover above to downtown’s newest building in recent memory.

Then of course there is the beat inside my beat — the nation’s largest oil terminal, proposed for the Port of Vancouver. While many stories can seem procedural, a few hearings saw plenty of action last month.

I also cover Clark Public Utilities, the electric utility for this county of 450,000. Staff there recently allowed too many people to sign up for solar incentives, which means people already enrolled and counting on that pool of state subsidies to break even on their investment could now see less money.

And you thought the sun didn’t shine in the Northwest. Well it does in Clark County, at least according to this year’s economic forecast.

Jobs, housing and earnings can populate my weeks, though I also get to write the occasional column for Sunday’s section, stretching my voice and, who knows, maybe attracting some readers my age. Last week I wrote about my generation’s peculiar personal finance. Coming up: Who knows, maybe I’ll hang out at the mall?

Cascadia Cometh

When I say Cascadia, I usually mean the bioregion that comprises the Pacific Northwest’s watershed that also contains a social movement whose flag looks like this:

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But in talking to enough geologists and emergency planners, you’ll find it’s also short for the Cascadia Subduction Zone, hundreds of miles of oceanic plate slipping below North America. It formed the Cascade range and its volcanoes, and it also causes the occasional earthquake. And it can produce the rare megathrust quake that we’re due for soon, as I wrote about last month around the 315th anniversary of the last major quake. The key takeaway: Don’t be scared, be prepared!

In less terrifying news, people around here went nuts for the Seahawks. (Locals got pretty crazy in Arizona too.)

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The Conditts — from left, Cameron, Dave, Kara and Shari — stand in front of their Battle Ground home, a beacon of 12th Man pride featuring an illuminated 12 on the roof. Photo by Brooks Johnson 

For a recent Sunday centerpiece, I explored the state of our city-owned industrial park that just can’t quite get going, at least in terms of good local jobs. And for those keeping up with the Cowlitz PUD chronicles, here’s a tangible effect of the political drama.

Another one of my articles made the Associated Press wire, so I’ll let you read about electric cars and some of the county’s under-used, federally funded charging stations… at Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

As you’ve seen from some of those stories, I’m keeping up on that whole do-it-all ethic by shooting many of my own photos. And as of Friday night, I’m a published sports photographer. Weirder things have happened.

Kelso's Kady Bruce drives down the court against Columbia River in the Lassies' big Senior Night win Feb. 6.
Kelso’s Kady Bruce drives down the court against Columbia River in the Lassies’ Senior Night win Feb. 6. Photo by Brooks Johnson 

Obligatory Year In Review Post?

No, it’s so much more.

But do take a look at what the newsroom picked for our top 10 stories this year, a list topped by my handiwork on water, marijuana and the PUD. While I take credit for the story, I wish I could claim the print headline, which read: “The faucet, the bong and the tornado.”

Those issues will remain prominent this year, but I washed them off briefly with a quick dip into Lake Merwin on New Year’s Day.

For an earlier working-the-holidays tale, I invented a new holiday classic through this Christmas with a cop story.

Brian Streissguth gets ready to wrap up his Christmas Day shift after being shadowed by this reporter all morning. / Brooks Johnson
Brian Streissguth gets ready to wrap up his Christmas Day shift after being shadowed by this reporter all morning. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Despite the usual holiday slowdown, Longview was just full of news lately: On Wednesday the city officially bids farewell to longtime City Manager Bob Gregory; the city’s recycling contractor wants to ship its recyclables to Asia; and, possibly my most-shared-on-Facebook story yet, the Nutty Narrows squirrel bridge gets national recognition.

Another big share came from some bad news. Cowlitz County, for its beautiful landscape at the base of the Cascades and the mouth of the Columbia, has an ugly drug problem: The opioid overdose rate is the worst in the state.

More bad news could have turned into positive change, but the story about a Longview couple who died from carbon monoxide poisoning at a hotel – where detectors are not mandatory – didn’t get enough traction, be it unexciting photos or the heaviness of the topic.

That should do it for weekend reading for any of you who have stumbled upon this living document of my career. But it wouldn’t be this close to year’s end without a proper list, so let me present to you a few of my favorite ledes thus far at The Daily News:

Everyone says the same thing: “You’re from North Dakota, you’re used to the cold.” Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

A paintbrush, a canvas, a kiln: Rosemary Scandale has no need for these mediums. Her art comes to life on bodies, with the settings on her sewing machine permanently set to historical accuracy.

It would be easy to picture Wilbert Winter’s story as a series of sepia-toned photographs. He was a self-taught aeronautics engineer and pilot who met his wife building planes during World War II. A brakeman on Montana’s Great Northern Railroad. A harsh man who never spent a cent on credit in his 91 years.

Jesus came to town Friday in a gray Honda Civic with Oregon plates.