Over the course of a year, the reporters, editors and producers at Oregon Public Broadcasting explore a head-spinning range of topics. Each story that is reported is important, however, there are some that prove indelible.
Here are stories, curated by OPB digital, news and environment staff, that stood above the rest in 2019.
Avan Garcia is an exceptionally fearless teenager. The youth often rides with cowboys on the Warm Springs Reservation as they round up wild horses.
When OPB met him in June, he was preparing for the 50th annual Pi-Ume-Sha rodeo. The rodeo is part of a weekend of community activities commemorating the Treaty of 1855, which still protects certain rights for members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Despite his horse running away with a herd of wild mustangs and having a fractured wrist from riding a bull, Garcia went on to win the endurance horse race at this year’s rodeo.
For Plastics Or Fuel?
In early 2019, OPB received word that a proposed methanol plant in Southwest Washington may not have been all that was promised. While Washington Gov. Jay Inslee initially lauded the plant as a potential way to clean up the plastics industry in China, documents obtained by OPB showed that investors in the project were marketing it as a way to produce fuel for the voracious market overseas.
If the project were to become a fuels- rather than plastics-focused initiative, it could contribute far more to greenhouse gases than initially expected. Inslee, who was running for president at the time on a platform of addressing climate change, soon dropped his support — making the methanol plant’s future less certain.
Booked And Buried
A deep investigation into county jail deaths across Oregon and Washington revealed that in the past decade, more than 300 people have died while incarcerated. In most cases, the people were still awaiting trial.
The monthslong investigation by OPB, KUOW and the Northwest News Network showed that county jails in the Northwest are ill-equipped to meet the increasing medical and mental health needs of people who are being arrested. As a result of the reporting, both Oregon and Washington lawmakers vowed to create new tracking and regulations to stop the rising tide of deaths.
— Ryan Haas, OPB news editor
A Distant Refuge
Arya Surowidjojo’s portrait of Portland’s Rohingya community showed the surprising, heart-wrenching drama playing out in a small grocery store in a nondescript suburban strip mall. Rohingya Muslims are facing genocide and ethnic cleansing at the hands of militant Buddhists in their home country of Burma (Myanmar). Those who escape with their lives often must leave behind family and loved ones to suffer. It’s a choice that weighs heavily on them as they get devastating updates from home on social media. Arya’s story shows the local and personal ripples from globally significant events, illuminating the many interconnections of the modern world.
— MacGregor Campbell, OPB senior visual producer
Foster Care Failures
2019 was the year Oregon leaders realized the state’s foster care system was broken, that the state’s struggle to find willing and able foster parents had led first to many children sleeping in motel rooms and in state offices and then to a jump in the number of kids sent to private, out-of-state facilities.
Once there, they were out of reach of state regulators and largely unheard when they began to complain of abuse and neglect. A monthslong investigation by Lauren Dake revealed that Oregon’s child welfare office had no centralized way to monitor children who’d been sent out of state and came to rely on the for-profit company that housed them to track their location and their safety.
Bad News In The Arts
The steady drumbeat of bad news for arts-centered education continued in 2019 with the closure of the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Over the years, thousands of artists had studied at the Southwest Portland school, and it helped seed Portland’s creative economy. The college had been suffering from low enrollment and administrative turnover, and from financial problems similar to those that led to the shuttering of the Art Institute of Portland and Marylhurst University before it.
Democratic Dominance In Salem, With Some Hiccups
Democrats entered 2019 with big majorities in the Oregon House and Senate and big plans for the biannual long legislative session. For the most part, they took advantage of that iron grip on state government, passing the nation’s first statewide rent control policy, muscling through a new $1 billion-a-year business tax to fund schools and creating a new paid family leave policy that gives workers up to 12 weeks of pay if they need to miss work for illness or to care for a family member.
Republicans had few tools to slow the stream of progressive priorities, but they did manage to stop the action twice. A Republican Senate walkout in early May led legislators to kill bills that would have tightened Oregon’s gun control laws and student vaccination requirements. And another walkout in June led to national headlines and ended in Democrats saying they lacked the votes to pass a landmark bill that would have charged polluters and capped greenhouse gas emissions.
— Anna Griffin, OPB news director
Plastics … Everywhere
2019 was a breakthrough year in the world’s growing understanding just how pervasive plastic pollution is in the environment. OPB did its part to shine a light on the topic. Our plastics special coverage for “Oregon Field Guide” and OPB.org explained how plastic trash in the ocean is working like an indestructible flotilla for ocean-crossing shellfish and other marine species that are native to one continent to cross the seas. Once they arrive on new shores, they can wreak ecological havoc, upsetting the balance of life for other plants and animals that evolved without the presence of these invasive species.
When we found a lack of scientific information on whether microscopic bits of plastic were polluting our lakes and rivers, our science and environment reporters Jes Burns and Cassandra Profita became citizen-scientists. They worked with professional scientists to take water samples from rivers throughout the state and have them lab-tested to find out whether even our most seemingly pristine rivers were actually polluted with plastic.
Oil Trains In Portland
A surge in oil-train traffic rolling through the Pacific Northwest surged during the 2010s, as these “rolling pipelines delivered crude from Canada’s tar sands and North Dakota’s Bakken oil boomtowns to shipping terminals and oil refineries. The city of Portland responded with a 2015 resolution that banned new fossil fuel terminals.
But an investigation by OPB found that the resolution had failed to stop a company called Zenith Energy from using previously obtained city permits to nearly quadruple its capacity for offloading oil from railroad tank cars traveling alongside the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The revelations led the way to protests by climate activists and efforts by political leaders to find new ways to halt the expansion.
— David Steves, OPB Science & Environment managing editor
When The Trade War Lands In Your Backyard
The Trump administration has changed a wide range of policies from immigration to defense to trade. If there’s one issue that’s had a profound effect on businesses in the Northwest, it’s the shift in trade policy toward protectionist tariffs — and the retaliatory moves they’ve drawn from trade partners in Asia. OPB’s Kate Davidson dug into the complicated world of tariffs and reported that the farms at greatest risk of tariffs are struggling because their ability to make a profit is even more complicated than tariffs. The story of longtime apple farmers in the Columbia basin demonstrates the challenges of farming – from the cost of tariffs, to enduring freezing weather and labor conflicts, to navigating the fallout of foreign wars.
The Vaping Illness
When an Oregonian died in September 2019 of a mysterious vaping-related lung problem, it was the second fatality in what became a national epidemic of more than 2,500 injuries and 54 deaths. Vaping concerns triggered policy changes from local and state authorities in a number of states, including Oregon and Washington, as well as an intense research effort led by federal scientists. OPB reporter Kristian Foden-Vencil dug into the science — including research warning of the risks of vaping going back years — as well as on-the-ground views from business owners and customers, including young people. Oregon policymakers have tried to enact bans on vaped products but have been stymied by lawsuits. The danger of vaping nicotine and cannabis promises to remain a big story in 2020, as research, lawsuits and public opinion evolves.
Measuring The Student Success Act’s Success
After a quarter-century of Oregon schools feeling squeezed by voter-approved property tax limits – and years of politicians campaigning on getting schools more money – the 2019 Legislature followed through. After a year of meetings around the state, and in spite of Republican senators walking out of the Capitol in protest, lawmakers passed the “Student Success Act.” Business groups helped pass the commercial activities tax, though some individual businesses are worried. While schools spent the fall figuring out where the money should go, state officials have been figuring out exactly the tax will work. OPB visited one community — Philomath — and learned that there’s simultaneous excitement in the local high school about how the money could help struggling students, and concern among business owners who anticipate difficult choices in 2020.
— Rob Manning, OPB news editor
The Governor Who Couldn’t Vote
This story was actually published in late 2018, but had a life to it that carried it into our best stories of 2019. Carolyn B. Shelton was the first woman to serve as governor in United States history. She became Oregon’s governor before women even had the right to vote in the state — and yet her story is largely unknown. She isn’t on lists of famous women in American history. Her obituary is filled with the accomplishments of her husband, Sen. George Chamberlain, rather than her own. Her name is even spelled wrong on her gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. Bryan M. Vance pieced together a beautiful biography of Shelton and her brief time in office through interviews, documents and newspaper clippings. In early 2019, a living relative of Shelton even reached out to provide more information and share never-before-published photos of her great-great aunt. Carrie Shelton’s story is fascinating in its own right. So too is the explanation of why people don’t know it.
— Bradley W. Parks, OPB digital producer