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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Duff Wilson

At a glance
Fateful Harvest
by Duff Wilson

322 pages, $$13.95

Duff Wilson has, he says, ``ink in his veins.''

Cliché aside, it's an appropriate metaphor. Wilson, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Seattle Times, grew up in a newspaper office.

Literally. His parents, Bruce and Merilynn Wilson, were longtime publishers of the Omak Chronicle.

It's only natural, then, that Wilson would go on to pursue his own journalism career. Since 1989, Wilson has worked on what he calls ``long-term investigative projects.''

``Sometimes I can talk about them,'' he says. ``Sometimes not.''

Sometimes he can even write books about them, which is where Wilson's book ``Fateful Harvest'' comes in. Subtitled ``The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry and a Toxic Secret'' (HarperPerennial, 322 pages, $13.95 paper), Wilson's book is the May selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

``Fateful Harvest'' began as a 1997 investigative series. Invited to the central Washington town of Quincy by then-mayor Patty Martin, Wilson was clued in to an issue that most people - Wilson included - weren't aware of: Farmers were spreading poison on their wheat, corn and pea crops.

As he wrote in the Times, ``Manufacturing industries are disposing of hazardous wastes by turning them into fertilizer to spread around farms. And they're doing it legally.''

``Fateful Harvest'' is written like a morality play, detailing the run of a once-prosperous farmer named Dennis DeYoung and pitting Martin and a few farmers against an industry that seems intent on making a profit at the expense of public health.

But as reviewer John Hubner wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, `` `Fateful Harvest' is no screed.''

``The drama inherent in this conflict makes `Fateful Harvest' more than just one more expose of a corporation on a feeding frenzy,'' Hubner wrote.

What Wilson tried to do was write a ``page-turner'' that, he says, gave readers ``an increased awareness of what we're doing with leftover industrial chemicals.''

He worked for more than a year on the Times series, and he was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Approached by a literary agent to expand the series into a book, he took an 11-month leave and worked even harder. Three years of effort, 300 interviews and 50,000 pages of documents later, ``Fateful Harvest'' emerged.

Curiously enough, the story came to Wilson by chance. Martin originally called another reporter who then recommended that she talk to Wilson. And even after hearing what Martin had to say, he wasn't convinced.

``Her story sounded intriguing, if hard to believe,'' he says. ``You don't hear something new all that often. I thought she was misunderstanding or mistaken. But over time it became clear that she was really onto something, that she was at least 75 or 80 percent right. And that was plenty good enough to make a story.''

It helped that the story had a naturally dramatic plot: ``The more established farmers in Quincy made it an even better story by retaliating against her and trying to shut her up,'' Wilson says. ``That made it an `Enemy of the People'-type story.''

However the story was framed, Wilson was the guy to tell it. After graduating from Western Washington University in 1976, he first worked for the Seattle weekly The Argus. After working for former Governor Mike Lowry during his first Congressional term, Wilson moved on to The Everett Herald and then graduate school at the Columbia University school of journalism.

Hired shortly afterward by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he moved to the Times eight years later. Over the years he has won a number of journalism awards while covering stories such as the sale of fake Chinese antiques, unethical practices by Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the death of children overseen by Child Protective services.

He loves what he does.

``My investigative reporting projects usually seek to find something that's a problem that needs fixing,'' Wilson says. ``It sounds self-serving, but I'm always seeking to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I'm seeking to find those areas where the laws aren't being enforced or where people are being victimized. Places where I can make a difference.''

As he did in Quincy.

Since the original series ran, Washington and three other states have enacted legislation that outlaws the use of toxic materials in fertilizer, and a number of others, Wilson says, ``are considering it.'' The Environmental Protection Agency last year ``closed the most outrageous loopholes for the steel-mill industry.'' And one fertilizer salesman now sells, Wilson says, ``100-percent-hazardous-free fertilizer.''

``It's had quite a direct impact on him and actually a lot of quiet impact on the industry that they don't talk about,'' Wilson says. ``But they're checking their supplies much closer.''

Maybe they should also check Wilson's veins.

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