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Pulitzer winner speaks at Festival of Ideas

CHRIS DORST | Gazette
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dan Fagin, right, talks with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson, of Charleston, during a reception before the annual Festival of Ideas lecture at the Clay Center Tuesday night.

Make peace with uncertainty, last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction told several hundred people at the Clay Center on Tuesday night.

It’s necessary to protect public health, said Dan Fagin, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.”

The book is about a small town on the New Jersey coast being ravaged by industrial pollution. In the mid-1990s, state and federal agencies began to notice high levels of cancer among children who’d grown up in Toms River over the previous quarter-century.

For years, chemical companies used Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater in the town’s namesake river, according to information about the book.

“The town’s main well-field was located right beside the river. Does that ring any bells?” Fagin asked. The crowd mumbled.

It was an easy decision for Fagin to come to West Virginia to speak, he said -- especially after last year’s chemical leak in Charleston. Fagin spoke at the annual Festival of Ideas, co-sponsored by The Charleston Gazette and West Virginia University. He spoke in Morgantown on Monday night.

Fagin’s book “is especially relevant for our state one year after the chemical spill in the Elk River,” WVU President E. Gordon Gee said introducing Fagin.

The message of Toms River is an important one for West Virginia, with its long and tangled history with the chemical industry, Fagin has told the Gazette.

“Are we willing to take action based on incomplete information?” he asked Tuesday, noting epidemiology, the study of controlling diseases and factors relating to health, is never certain. “We need to not be afraid of probabilistic signs. Signs that can’t tell us anything definitive, but say, ‘here’s the weight of the evidence.’

“In our every day lives we act based on incomplete information all the time,” he said. “We hear a gunshot, we duck. We don’t say let me calculate the trajectory and see if that’s really headed toward me.”

Agencies must also make better use of the information they collect, he said.

“We ought to be just as willing to use data to save lives as we are on national security,” he said.

A New York University professor and former environmental reporter for Newsday, Fagin said he wanted to hear from local residents “given what this city has been through.”

Fagin also praised his longtime friend, the Gazette’s environmental reporter, Ken Ward.

“I’m not sure the people of West Virginia realize they have one of the finest environmental reporters in the country -- on the planet,” Fagin said. “I can’t think of a place where that work is more relevant than in West Virginia.”

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1723 or @KateLWhite on Twitter.

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