Category Archives: On writing

A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.

‘War of the Whales’ : A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz

The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the “cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.

“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a leg up on the Cold War.”

Joshua Horwitz
Joshua Horwitz

As I described yesterday in Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.

Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers, who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint into perspective.

“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these guys are villains. This is a totally different story from ‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”

While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm they were doing.

“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them up that they have gotten a black eye.”

Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh said.

“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign ranges.”

As recently as April, a mass stranding of beaked whales was observed during a training exercise involving the U.S., Greek and Israeli navies. Check out a report by Greek Reporter and a blog post by Michael Jasny of Natural Resources Defense Council.


New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.

“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors inside the Navy.”

One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential harm to marine life.

Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training. They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times when whales are likely to be there.

More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be encountered in real life.

“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he said.

“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it would be a win for everybody,” he added.

Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of energy and its overall carbon footprint.

One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do. “I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine life throughout the world, he said.

“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution that will still be there for a very long time.”

At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us, he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with marine mammals.

Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the 1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which involves putting writers together with characters who have a great story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.

Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version is in the works.

During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money raised through The Ocean Foundation.

By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project and get the book into print.

Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C., with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.

“War of the Whales” can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals, in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the world.


Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound, has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the whales.

Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book, given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.

I consider this book to be several stories woven into one. First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.

Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology, developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz describes it.

The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed success.

Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to environmental law versus the need for national security. As a result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.

Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters, especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s single-minded approach to national security.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place, practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and he made the connection to the dead whales.

From there, other researchers and policy officials became involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being swept under the rug.

“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of whales.”

We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.

Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks revealed something about their past and present positions in life.

Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete the book.

“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken, somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had confused notes or what.”

Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story could not be assailed.

Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.

Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials, whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other retired officers.

“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping him understand anti-submarine warfare.

Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in promotional materials for the book:

“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national security and environmental protection. The author presents this very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.

“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the wide reading public in a compelling way.”

In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one especially important to those of us living in an area where the Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine life.

Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and what he learned along the way.

The book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

My career transition and what it will bring

I wish to thank everyone who sent their congratulations, appreciation and good wishes to me over the past week since I announced that I’ll be starting down a new career path in environmental reporting. See Water Ways, Oct. 17.

I’m still in transition, and I expect that it will be about three weeks before I rev up this blog to a new level, with more original reporting — like my interview Monday with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who talked about the discouraging loss of the newest orca calf born to the Southern Resident pods.

If you’re not a subscriber to this blog, you may want to wait and see if you like the change. On the other hand, you won’t get any junk email by subscribing. All you’ll get is an email with a paragraph of text when I write something new — an email easily deleted if you’re not interested. To subscribe to email (or RSS) click on the appropriate box in the right column. If you have any trouble or would just like to contact me directly, my new email is ChrisBDunagan(at)

pulse graphic

While this Water Ways blog will bring you more discussions of new ideas and reflections about ongoing environmental issues, my other goal is to write some in-depth stories for the Kitsap Sun and potentially other publications. I will be completing the series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” in November and December.

Although I officially accepted an early-retirement package, I’ve avoided the “r” word, as noted by the Kitsap Sun’s editor, David Nelson, in a piece that ran in Sunday’s edition. Thank you, David, for your strong and ongoing support.

By David Nelson, Editor, Kitsap Sun

I promised Chris Dunagan we wouldn’t use the “r-word” when telling readers about the transition he’s entering in his career. Chris, as he’sexplained in his column, is stepping away from the daily grind of the newsroom. But he’s not losing the passion he has for environmental journalism, or the significant role he’s played and will continue to play in our mission of providing local journalism.

So I won’t use that word. But I’m going to take a moment to recognize a desk in a corner of a newsroom cubicle, suddenly empty after so many years, piled high with scientific studies, legal documents, tip sheets and notebooks overflowing with ideas. And then there are the shelves in our newsroom library, stacked with books on salmon and stormwater studies, and the files that fill a row of cabinets labeled with the same name: Dunagan. Most of these, I’m afraid, are retiring from our cluttered office.

But those stacks are the signs of a career spent digging deeply and seriously into a topic, and it’s a role Chris has performed like no one else. He was the first environmental and land-use reporter in the history of the Sun and three decades of work on that topic has provided this community and the region with an incredible resource. From early work that turned into a book that was honored by the governor and state library, “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk,” to an intensive ongoing project that will conclude this winter, “Taking the Pulse of the Puget Sound,” to his fun annual guide to salmon stream watching, Chris’s ambition can never be questioned.

There isn’t a reporter I know who spends more time researching and detailing his ideas. Editors know what that can mean — a Dunagan story may be proposed at a certain number of words, but once he’s fleshed out every nook and cranny of a topic and understands complicated matter inside and out, he’s going to ask for a little more space in the paper. Even having cursed the editing process myself occasionally when squeezed for print space, I admire the perseverance, dedication and joy he has for his topics, from orcas to neighborhood disputes over land development, to the health of the waterways that are vital to our way of life in the Puget Sound.

I’ll miss seeing Chris buried at that busy desk each day. But as he mentions in his column, readers will still know what’s on his mind and what he’s studying. He’ll continue having a byline into the future, similarly to how longtime Sun writers like Chuck Stark, Seabury Blair, Travis Baker have remained part of our family while also focused on other aspects of life or pursuing outside projects.

And I remain committed to the Sun’s long-standing coverage of the environment, both through Chris’s continued contribution and our more recent development of outdoors coverage, which approaches environmental and land use questions from another perspective. You can plan on continuing to read about resource management, land planning and the health of ecosystems in our pages and websites.

Chris isn’t gone, he won’t be forgotten. But he is thanked for an incredible contribution to this newsroom over more than three decades and he leaves with the only r-word any reporter really wants from his editor and readers: respect, for both the stories we’ve read and those to come.

Taking time to remember Billy Frank Jr.

UPDATE, July 24, 2014
The latest issue of “Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission News” (PDF 1.1 mb) is dedicated to the late Billy Frank, who served as chairman of the commission for nearly 40 years. The issue includes numerous tributes from those who worked with Billy through the years. Print copies are available by emailing Tony Meyer or Emmet O’Connell at NWIFC.

UPDATE, June 11, 2014
Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, wrote a tribute to Billy Frank that is worth reading. Jeromy mentions three admirable attributes of Billy Frank and gives examples of each. They are words to live by.

  • Stand up for what you believe in … even when no one else will.
  • Treat people with respect even if you’re on opposite sides.
  • It’s the big and small things that make your community a better place.

Read Jeromy’s entire column, written for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Newspaper.

The affection and admiration expressed for Billy Frank Jr. has been somewhat overwhelming in recent days. I thought it would be nice to pull together some of the tributes — including the memorial service — that talk about this man who was an irrepressible voice for salmon recovery, environmental restoration and Native American rights.

Billy, 83, a member of the Nisqually Tribe and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, died last Monday, May 5, at his home. As I said in Water Ways last Tuesday, I believe Billy will remain an unforgetable force.

An estimated 6,000 people attended his memorial service Sunday at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Skookum Creek Event Center, located at Little Creek Casino Resort near Shelton.

The service was recorded by Squaxin Streams and posted on the Livestream website, which is the video player on this page.

Billy Frank’s own words, “Nobody can replace my life,” speak of the changes from one generation to the next. Billy knew as well as anyone that we can’t go back, but he asked people to help determine a better environmental future. Secretary of State Legacy Project.

      1. Billy's own words


Tributes, statements, news

William D. Ruckelshaus, former chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, of which Billy was a member. Published in Crosscut, May 8.

Martha Kongsgaard, current chairwoman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council. Published on the partnership’s website, May 6.

Gov. Jay Inslee, statement from the Governor’s Office

President Barack Obama, statement from the White House

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, VIDEO, speech on Senate floor, May 12.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, VIDEO, speech on Senate floor, May 12.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, VIDEO, speech on House floor, May 9.

Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton. Statement, Van Ness, Feldman.

Kitsap Sun editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee
Kitsap Sun editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee

John Dodge, reporter for The Olympian. Published in the Olympian, May 8.

E3 Washington, Education, Environment, Economy. Website, May 7.

Indian Country Today Media Network

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribal Council, and Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Council, in Kitsap Sun, May 5.

Ron Ross was the ultimate common-sense guy

I already miss Ron Ross, who was the inspiration for numerous stories I wrote through the years. Ron died two weeks ago, on May 26.

Ron Ross
Ron Ross

Every few months, Ron would call me with a questioning tone to his voice. He would talk about some city, county or state policy or regulation and tell me how it was working, or not working, and how it was affecting him or someone else.

“How does this make any sense?” he would ask.

Many times, Ron would have the nut of an issue, which would pan out into a story. Sometimes these stories involved property rights, but Ron was never the kind of property-rights advocate who believed a person should be able to do anything he wants with his property. He just wanted government rules to make sense and work for the majority of people.

It drove him crazy when a well-intentioned regulation caused more problems than it solved. Ron was, if anything, a common-sense kind of guy.

If the salmon couldn’t get upstream, he didn’t wait for all the permits he was supposed to get, not while the salmon were waiting. He just got out with some volunteers and moved the fish upstream — not to a place of his choosing, but to exactly the place where they were supposed to go. How could anyone argue with that?

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Amusing Monday: Diving with the yellow eye

This week, I’d like to bring you a couple of engaging pieces — a podcast and a magazine article — both longer than what I usually post for “Amusing Monday.”

Both include stories about octopuses. But what I love about both of these is the human interaction. They also take me back about 35 years to a time when I was actively scuba diving all over Puget Sound.

In the podcast, the interviewer, Jeff Emptman, expresses a curiosity about scuba diving in Puget Sound, and he is rewarded with a vivid and accurate description by a janitor named John:

Jeff: “What’s that feeling like, dipping below the surface?”

John: “In Puget Sound, the first feeling is, ‘Oh my god, it’s so freakin’ cold!’”

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Students ride the wind during salmon kayak tour

When 60 students from Central Kitsap High School took off in double kayaks to look for jumping salmon, they had no idea how the changing weather would make the trip more exciting.

Bill Wilson, who teaches environmental science, organized Tuesday’s trip on Dyes Inlet near Silverdale. Lead guide Spring Courtright of Olympic Outdoor Center shares the story in her words.

Reminder: Free stream tours from land are scheduled for Saturday. See the story I wrote for Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

Wind pushes the kayaks along, as 60 Central Kitsap High School students return to Silverdale Tuesday after watching jumping salmon. / Photos by Spring Courtright

By Spring Courtright
Program Director, Olympic Outdoor Center

At 9 a.m. on election day, anyone peering through the fog at Silverdale Waterfront Park would have seen 35 bright kayaks lined up on the beach and 60 high school students preparing to paddle.

Central Kitsap High School environmental science students study salmon in class, then are given the option to paddle with jumping salmon on an annual Salmon Kayak Tour with the Olympic Outdoor Center (OOC). For the last two years, 60 students have jumped on the opportunity.

This trip started about 10 years ago with about half that number of students. I have been one of the lead guides for nearly all of these tours. It’s always an adventure, but this year was one of the more memorable trips because of the beautiful clouds and quick change in weather.
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The ongoing adventures of an enviro reporter

I recently spent an afternoon with Eric Sorensen, former science writer for the Seattle Times who now works for the Washington State University News Bureau.

As we drove up and down the back roads of the Kitsap Peninsula, I showed Eric some of my favorite places, and I dredged through my memory banks for stories I’ve covered through the years. I found myself babbling nonstop, talking about one environmental issue after another, trying to tie together the geography and history of our peninsula.

Somehow, Eric was able to create a nice biographical story about me from our discussion and his review of my stories. You can read his piece, titled “Bearing witness to the sights and smells of our soggy backyard,” in WSU’s alumni publication “Washington State Magazine.”

His story begins, “If you cover the waterfront the way Chris Dunagan does, you have to expect a fair amount of smells. There’s the fresh, tangy scent of estuary and the mild musk of beach wrack. There’s the stench of rotting shellfish during the great Oyster Rescue of 2010 and the outsized rot of a beached gray whale….”

It seems Eric had some fun with this story, even if my reputation as a smelly type of reporter needed no help. Anyway, I think he did a wonderful job of capturing some of my adventures.

I found a brief bio and humorous photo of Eric in an announcement of a talk he was giving journalism students at the University of Idaho, just across the state line from WSU.

Eric has captured many wonderful stories related to the research and personalities of folks associated with WSU. You can find a list of his recent work on this search page of “Washington State Magazine.”

When “Washington State Magazine” went online, he wrote a thoughtful “Dear Reader” piece about magazines, the art of reading and the flow of information. Thanks to the Internet version of the magazine, anyone can read Eric’s story about me.

Amusing Monday: Toilet songs for the holidays

Knowing more than a few sewer operators in my day, I can tell you that their leading pet peeve is all the stuff that people dump down their toilets and drains.

I’ll never forget the courtroom description of a giant “rag ball” — some 30 feet long — found in Bremerton’s sewer. Rag balls are the accumulation of diapers, tampons and baby wipes that get flushed down the toilet and become caught somewhere in the sewer lines.

Bremerton’s famous rag ball became wrapped up in courtroom testimony during a lawsuit against a sewer contractor hired by the city to run the operation. For details, check out my story from April of 1998.

Steve Anderson

What I really wanted to share with you this week is a song called “O Christmas Grease” by Steve Anderson, a water resources analyst at Clean Water Services. This is the agency that manages wastewater and stormwater in a 12-city region west of Portland, Ore.

Steve often writes music and performs in a band when he’s not working at the utility. He told me that he started writing original songs as well as parodies of existing tunes to entertain his fellow water experts at conferences. Last week, for example, he showed up at a conference to help educators decide whether humor is useful in educating people about wastewater issues.

Steve says the public-education folks at Clean Water Services tolerates his songs, but they do not fully embrace his activities. His first song — a parody about the low levels of drugs that make it through the treatment process — got him into a little hot water with some folks in the business. “Dope in the Water” is sung to the tune of the Deep Purple original.

“The Ballad of Betty Poop” was written as a kid’s song for Take-Your-Children-to-Work Day. It’s about the adventures of a plastic GI Joe and other characters. It includes these famous lines: “Give it up, you toilet treasures… You’ll never make it all the way to the river…”

Steve has not released these songs to the public, though he readily shares them with friends and anyone who will listen. I must thank Gayle Leonard, who writes a blog called “Thirsty in Suburbia,” for bringing Steve’s songs out into the light and putting me in touch with this creative force in the sewer world.

      1. O Christmas Grease
      2. Dope in the Water
      3. The Ballad of Betty Poop
      4. Dont Flush the Baby (Wipes)
      5. Fats Oils and Grease

Download the lyrics to all five songs (PDF 72 kb)