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Fuel leak sparks charge against reporter

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    NMU         UTAH         Newsgathering         Apr 11, 2002    

Fuel leak sparks charge against reporter

  • A Salt Lake City journalist charged with “unauthorized discharge” for not notifying the fire department about a fuel spill said it is not his responsibility to notify authorities when reporting on unlawful activities that occur.

A Deseret News staff writer in Salt Lake City who wrote a story about a diesel fuel spill at the newspaper’s office building in January has been charged for not reporting the leak directly to the fire department.

City prosecutors charged Jerry Spangler Feb. 7 under the “unauthorized discharges” law, a misdemeanor violation. Spangler was unaware of the charges until April 2.

The newspaper published Spangler’s story about the spill on Jan. 4, the day after nearly 400 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into the basement of the Deseret News. The fuel was mistakenly delivered to the Deseret News instead of the neighboring Newspaper Agency Corp., the corporation that handles the joint operating agreement between the News and The Salt Lake Tribune. The fuel overflowed because the Deseret News’ storage tank was already full.

On the day of the spill, Spangler contacted Richard Gee, a hazardous-material trainer for the state Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management, for comments for his story. Gee told Spangler he needed to call the city fire department.

But Spangler said he responded that as a journalist it is not his responsibility to notify the authorities when something unlawful occurs. He said notifying authorities would make him a participant in his story and “a tool of law enforcement.” Spangler did tell newspaper officials about the reporting requirement, according to the newspaper’s attorney.

But Salt Lake City Prosecutor Simarjit Gill said in an April 6 Salt Lake Tribune article that he is looking at Spangler not as a reporter but as a person who was told to contact the fire department and did not.

The fire department was notified of the spill on Jan. 4, almost 24 hours after the spill, and determined the situation was not hazardous. The health department and public works, along with an environmental cleanup crew, had remedied the spill on Jan. 3.

Spangler said his attorney is trying to have the charges dismissed before his arraignment on April 18.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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