A month ago, back on March 30, a fire brought down an elevated portion of Interstate 85 in Atlanta, temporarily shutting down 10 lanes of both northbound and southbound traffic in one of the country's most congested cities.
You probably remember the story, although in the never-ending cycle of breaking news, the I-85 fire has mostly disappeared from the headlines now.
But a month ago, for about 48 hours, the story was the focus of the media everywhere. And that included Plastics News.
The plastics angle was that the fire was started — allegedly intentionally — in a state-owned storage area beneath the highway. And initial reports from government officials at the scene was that the fire was fueled by PVC pipe.
Those initial reports turned out to be wrong. By the evening of March 31, state and local officials came out and specifically corrected what they had been saying for nearly 24 hours: What actually had burned, they announced, was high density polyethylene conduit.
To most TV viewers and newspaper readers across the country, the difference in materials was a relatively obscure part of the story. They were more focused on who started the fire, why the state was storing construction materials under the highway, and whether the area was secure enough.
And, in Atlanta, how would it affect their commute, and when would traffic get back to normal.
But to many Plastics News readers, the difference in materials was extremely significant.
Our first story on the fire went online just after noon on March 31. We reported what officials were saying, that burning PVC pipe had caused the highway to collapse.
But we were suspicious of the initial reports; the facts did not add up. Frank Esposito, our senior reporter who covers materials, pointed out right away that despite what the local officials were saying, PVC is not "highly flammable."
Local officials were saying it was PVC, but at the same time they were describing it as spools of pipe, which hint that it was HDPE. Which was correct? We reported both, calling it "spools of PVC pipe or conduit."
Unfortunately, the deadline for our print edition was looming, and I was faced with a decision: How to handle the story for our April 3 newspaper. We ran the story as a Newsclip on Page 3 with the headline "PVC items fuel fire that cause collapse."
Within a few hours, we had the correct information. Some PVC industry sources even shared local news reports with us via Twitter, pointing to HDPE. We updated the story on PlasticsNews.com that afternoon, and everyone who read the headline in our daily news email the next morning saw it under the headline "Plastic conduit fuels fire that cause bridge collapse."
But print edition readers still got the wrong information.
As readers received their issues on April 3, I started to receive emails.
One wrote: "Your headline calls out PVC and your first line says 'Spools of PVC pipe' when PVC pipe is never spooled. And the fact that PVC rarely 'contributes' to a fire called me to question the accuracy of this report."
Another said: "It is quite common to hear any plastic building product referred to as vinyl. But the distinctions between PVC and HDPE are critical in a fire. Might you have repeated that misnomer?"
Yes, I think that's exactly what happened. It was a good reminder to be skeptical of what officials say about plastics.
I apologize for the error. We corrected it immediately online. I worked late that Friday afternoon to not only correct the story and headline, but to make sure it was right in the daily email. But, unfortunately, the timing of the event, right on our deadline, meant we ran some incorrect information in print.
One reader said Plastics News may have been displaying a bias against PVC, or in favor of HDPE. I can assure you that's not the case. We were just trying to accurately report the plastics-specific angle of a major news story.
We are just as concerned with getting the story right as our readers, if not more so. And if readers want to have their say on the subject, I encourage them to post comments on our stories and columns online, and to write letters to the editor for publication in print.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog." Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.