If you’ve been to the Newseum, the media museum in D.C., you may have seen this H.L. Mencken quote etched on a wall: “I know of no human being who has a better time than an eager and energetic young reporter.” It’s one of my favorites.
Mencken’s words came to mind on a reporting trip a few weeks ago hiking in the mud and snow of the West Elk Mountains. Our group was led by Kelsey Ray, a University of Colorado journalism grad student reporting her last story as an intern for The Independent. Her article, which ran this week, is called, “The Invisible Plume: Why coal mine methane is worth looking at.” It’s about the West Elk coal mine, Colorado’s biggest methane polluter.
Because methane is invisible, we asked the D.C.-based Earthworks to shoot footage of the plume with its infrared video camera. Earthworks flew out a two-person crew whom Kelsey and I met up with in the West Slope town of Paonia. Some other friends of The Indy joined our little expedition, which turned out to be not so little.
What we figured might be an hour or two hike to West Elk’s methane exhauster #E6-6 became a whole day trek not only because one member of our posse had knee problems and altitude sickness, but also because, uh, we got lost. It’s easy to do in that backcountry. And, not surprisingly, Arch Coal, the company that owns the mine underneath, doesn’t make its methane exhausters a cinch to find.
Kelsey led the way, studying the map, scouting the path and practically sprinting up and down the slushy hills, encouraging our team to forge ahead. “We’re almost there,” she kept saying. Kelsey handed the slowest hiker water from her bottle, urging her to trudge on. At age 26 – and by far the youngest among us – Kelsey gave a pep-talk when some on the hike doubted we’d reach the elusive methane vent.
There are two types of fun, she explained. Type 1 is when everyone’s actually enjoying themselves. Type 2 (as anyone who has climbed mountains knows) is hard and pretty un-fun until the task is over, when in hindsight it seems like a kick. This trek, Kelsey told the group as we ate our last apple slices and sipped our last drops of water halfway into the day, was turning out to be Type 2.
“Yeah,” mumbled Earthworks’ thermographer, Sharon Wilson, the only Texan in our little pack. “Right.”
Late in the afternoon, Kelsey found it – vent pad #E6-6, deep in the forest where Arch Coal’s mobile exhauster machine was sucking up methane from hundreds of feet underground. “From afar, the forest sounds almost like a fluorescent-lit room, a faint, droning hum, until you hike closer to the source, where the buzz is overwhelming,” Kelsey wrote in her must-read story.
Wilson perked up, whipped out her infrared camera and started shooting the methane that’s invisible to the eye but was clear as day on her screen: a dark plume of greenhouse gas that – day after day, month after month and year after year – is perpetually spewing into the atmosphere, “where the only thing it’s heating,” Kelsey wrote, “is the planet.”
“Nailed it,” said Wilson, gleeful at having captured Earthworks’ first footage of coal-mine methane pollution.
Kelsey, her lips clearly parched and her forehead and cheek smudged with mud, beamed. Mission accomplished.
I realize that trekking through heavy mountain mud and slush in search of an obscure methane exhauster isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, be it Type 1 or 2. But for us journalism geeks, it’s nirvana.
“A day in the newsroom is a wasted day,” said Ed Marston, the former longtime High Country News publisher who, along with his trusty red pickup, accompanied us on our trek.
There are parts of my job running a nonprofit news outlet that are far more fun than others. Schlepping up and down muddy mountains with Kelsey, Ed, Earthworks’ excellent crew and other dear friends of The Independent beats fundraising any day. Working with Kelsey as she grows into a crack investigative reporter has been a labor of love. She reminds us all at The Indy why we picked this line of work and why, in this especially challenging time for independent media, we’re fighting like hell to keep our news site running.
Kelsey graduates from CU tomorrow. She needs a job. And we – not just our newsroom, but all of us who value smart, in-depth reporting – need her. You can help us keep Kelsey on our team working to shine light on pressing issues in Colorado and making the invisible visible.
Thank you for your support.