"Journalism is about seeking the truth. That is why I wanted to be a journalist."
That's Bob Bajek, a small-town reporter who has been seeking the truth about a neighborhood lake that's been seriously polluted for years-he's been blocked at almost every turn from getting the story out.
Rantoul, Illinois, is a village of about 13,000. Residents often use Heritage Lake for recreation. The problem is that Heritage Lake used to be a sludge pit adjoining the Chanute Air Force Base. The base has been closed for years, but back in the 1960s, an airman buried a mixture of herbicides in Heritage Lake; the mixture is now known as Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used in the Vietnam War that causes severe damage to humans who come into contact with it. Bajek interviewed the airman, and the Air Force has admitted that Agent Orange was used at Chanute.
There's more. Several decades after the lake was polluted, the town of Rantoul burned buildings it had purchased from the Air Force; the buildings contained asbestos, and the environmental problems caused by the burning were never addressed. Rantoul paid fines to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency but no efforts were made to protect residents' health before the burning nor to look into any resulting health problems in the community. Bajek found federal and state documents, in addition to eyewitness testimony, showing that the base is still contaminated and that the toxic chemicals have seeped into the area's ground water. In 1983, an environmental impact study "showed extensive contamination from herbicides, pesticide, chemical burning and spills, and disposal practices."
As a reporter for the Rantoul Press, Bajek concluded that "Chanute Air Force Base remains highly contaminated. Most of Chanute's land has residential building restrictions and is so polluted that no one legally can sell it for residential development." He reported his findings in the newspaper.
One might think that Bajek's editor, as well as city officials, would be grateful for having this information exposed so they could set about solving the problem. One would be wrong. Both the paper's general manager and the village administrator told Bajek not to report on any more contamination issues. The general manager said that Bajek's stories "weren't what community newspapers were about and made the town look bad." In fact, the manager wrote an editorial condemning Bajek's reporting.
It got worse. Shortly after Bajek's reporting, he was fired. Then he received an email from the vice president of human resources and general counsel from the Press's parent company, warning him that any information or photographs he obtained while working for the Press belonged to the Press and should be destroyed.
Why was Bajek fired? According to the Press's manager, " . . . All that kid did was cause trouble . . . Bajek was talking to troublemakers, and they got him stirred up . . . He was fired because he upset every community leader in town." The manager refused to give names of any of those community leaders.
That's where it currently stands. Bajek is trying to get the word out about the dangers to the people of Rantoul. Rantoul officials are trying to suppress it.
Bajek is still seeking the truth.