Winners: SEJ 15th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

The Society of Environmental Journalists is proud to present the winners of the 2015-2016 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ's journalism contest is the world's largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics.

SEJ honors this year's winners Fri., Sept. 23, at a celebratory luncheon at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Sacramento, California, in conjunction with SEJ's 26th Annual Conference.

SEJ's 2016 Awards for Reporting on the Environment are...

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market
Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Small Market
Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market
Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market
Outstanding Feature Story
Outstanding Explanatory Reporting
Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

SEJ’s 2016 Distinguished Judges

 

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market

 

First Place

"Big Carbon Investigations" by Iman Amrani, James Ball, Irene Baqué, Simon Bowers, Mary Carson, Harry Davies, Jane Felner, Adrian Gatton, Suzanne Goldenberg, Felicity Lawrence, Terry Macalister, John Mullin, Maggie O'Kane, James Randerson, Alice Ross and Rodrigo Vázquez for TheGuardian.com

Story links:

  1. "The Real Story Behind Shell's Climate Change Rhetoric"
  2. "Shell Accused of Strategy Risking Catastrophic Climate Change"
  3. "Where There Is Oil and Gas There Is Schlumberger"
  4. "Coal Giant Exploited Ebola Crisis for Corporate Gain, Say Health Experts"
  5. "The Truth Behind Peabody's Campaign To Rebrand Coal As a Poverty Cure"
  6. "Revealed: BP's Close Ties with the UK Government"
  7. "BP Ditched Arctic Concerns for Strategic Deal with Russia"
  8. "Colombian Takes BP To Court in UK Over Alleged Complicity in Kidnap and Torture"
  9. "Gilberto Torres Survived Colombia's Death Squads. Now He Wants Justice."

Judges' comments: This fascinating multimedia package served up a great explanation of the background and ins-and-outs of companies that have shaped the energy landscape of the world today. In an ambitious project, the Guardian pointed out the contradiction between Shell’s publicly stated position on climate change and what they actually do in private, shed light on another powerful oil and gas giant that few people have heard of, revealed a campaign by the world’s biggest privately held coal mining company to undermine negotiations for the Paris climate talks and investigated how BP has tried to influence the UK’s climate policy. All of these stories were fact-filled, well-written and beautifully presented, with the help of good images and infographics. As many publications cut their environmental coverage, the Guardian has done the opposite and proved its commitment to help the general public understand one of the biggest challenges facing the 21st Century.

 

 

Second Place

"Tracking Ivory" by Bryan Christy and Brent Stirton, for National Geographic

Judges' comments: “Tracking Ivory” is an innovative and unprecedented investigation into tracking the African elephant ivory trade spanning much of the continent, detailing previously undisclosed routes also used by terrorists, warlords, sex traffickers and kidnappers. With the help of a nationally renowned taxidermist, reporter Bryan Christy crafted counterfeit ivory embedded with GPS tracking devices, then followed the items’ movements along hundreds of miles. The immediacy and urgency of his reporting and images by photographer Brent Stirton puts the reader at their side. It also led to several tense moments — such as an encounter with a Tanzanian airport screener that led to Christy spending a night detained by police. Some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, and the robust black market trade has global ramifications. The GPS devices may have stopped transmitting but this is just the beginning of a riveting and ongoing true crime tale.

 

 

Third Place

"Lumber Liquidators" by Anderson Cooper, Katherine Davis, Samuel Hornblower and Terry Manning for CBS' "60 Minutes"

Story links:

  1. Video of original March 1, 2015 story
  2. February 21, 2016 update

Judges' comments: "60 Minutes" might not have been the first to cover this topic, but when they weighed in they told a strong and damning story of falsified products that pose a very real risk to consumers. "60 Minutes" did impressive undercover reporting, crucial sample testing, a riveting “gotcha” interview on-air, and even caught an embarrassing — and major — error by CDC investigators. To take on such a huge company, you need a big microphone, and that’s what that show has. The piece had a huge impact, resulted in hundreds of lawsuits, criminal charges, the removal of the company’s board chairman and top officers, $13 million in fines, and dangerous laminate flooring was ripped up in countless homes and buildings.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Dam Called Trouble" by George Getschow for The Dallas Morning News (in print and on-line)

Supplemental Materials:

  1. "High-risk Lewisville Lake Dam Gets Congressional Funding for Important Safety Improvements"
  2. Supporting editorials, stories from other publications and letters to the Editor

Judges' comments: Infrastructure often escapes public or media attention until it fails, leading to catastrophe, as did the levees in Hurricane Katrina or the collapse of an eight-lane bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis. “The Dam Called Trouble” is the story of what may well be the nation’s next massive regional disaster: The Lewisville Lake Dam, 34 miles upstream from Dallas. The structure is aging and highly compromised. Were it to fail, the death toll could be as bad or worse than the Johnstown, Pa., flood of the late 1800s, which killed more than 2,000 people. Reporter George Getschow performed a valuable public service by refusing to accept the "sugarcoating" from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was publicly telling citizens "Dam failure is not likely" while its own documents warned "the likelihood of failure… is too high to assure public safety." Exposing the falsehoods, this investigation spurred congressional investigation and may have thwarted a potential tragedy.

 

Honorable Mention

"Evicted and Abandoned: The World Bank’s Broken Promise to the Poor" by Michael Hudson for International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Huffington Post, The Food & Environment Reporting Network & Partners

Story links:

  1. "Gold Rush: How The World Bank Is Financing Environmental Destruction"
  2. "Children Suffer As World Bank’s Borrowers Upend Their Lives"
  3. "The Uncounted: On India’s Coast, A Power Plant Backed by the World Bank Group Threatens A Way Of Life"
  4. "Refugees of Development"
  5. "World Bank Does Little As Villagers Threatened and Jailed for Protesting Big Projects"

Judges' comments: This was an extraordinarily ambitious project of over 15 months involving more than 80 journalists around the world — the type of scaled-up, collaborative journalism that ICIJ is pioneering. The series took what could be an arcane subject — about policy and money — and translated its consequences to vivid, compelling and searing human stories. In doing so, the journalists were not sidetracked by the easy targets of governments, bureaucrats and companies that carried out development projects on the backs of the poor and at the expense of the environment. Instead, the stories turned a focused spotlight on the very mechanism that fueled those actions, the decisions by the World Bank to pour millions of dollars into the projects. The reporters held the bank up to its own proclaimed goals of helping the poor and the environment, and showed starkly how the World Bank had failed.

 

Honorable Mention

"Broken by Design: How an Unknown Federal Agency Is Failing To Protect the Public from Pipeline Disasters" by Andrew Restuccia and Elana Schor for POLITICO

Story links:

  1. "Pipelines Blow Up and People Die"
  2. "Pipeline Company Knew Calif. Spill Could Reach Pacific"
  3. "Obama's Pipeline Safety Agency Waits for a Leader"
  4. "The Hole in Obama's Pipeline Safety Plan"

Judges' comments: Documenting a decade-long track record of a government agency, one in which the singular characteristic is what the agency did NOT do, is difficult journalism. It carries the risk of being a squishy and a tedious story. POLITICO avoided both and succeeded wonderfully in exposing the charade of the agency supposed to assure the public that gas and oil pipelines are safe. Those failings, the POLITICO stories told, came at tragic human costs: the 18-year-old fisherman overcome and drowned by leaked gasoline fumes, the 10-year-old boys engulfed in flames from a leak, just a few of the scores of people who have died from pipeline accidents. The reporters took the case against the agency from one of inaction to one of complicity; the story demonstrated how time and again the agency catered to the wishes of the pipeline companies.

 

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Small Market

 

First Place

"Exxon: The Road Not Taken" by Neela Banerjee, John Cushman, David Hasemyer and Lisa Song for InsideClimate News

Story links:

  1. "Exxon's Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels' Role in Global Warming Decades Ago"
  2. "Exxon Believed Deep Dive Into Climate Research Would Protect Its Business"
  3. "Exxon Confirmed Global Warming Consensus in 1982 with In-House Climate Models"
  4. "Exxon's Business Ambition Collided with Climate Change Under a Distant Sea"

Supplemental laterials:

  1. Reporting team bios, Exxon documents, related stories and more

Judges' comments: The judges were impressed by the scope of the reporting on Exxon’s shifting position on climate change. It was a story that spanned decades and was built on solid reporting and storytelling. Artfully crafted, the articles used great writing, diligent reporting, multimedia sources and captivating interviewing to shed light on a major story. Bravo.

 

Second Place

"Lead Paint: Despite Progress, Hundreds of Maryland Children Still Poisoned" by Timothy Wheeler and Luke Broadwater for The Baltimore Sun

Story links:

  1. "Lead Paint: Despite Progress, Hundreds of Maryland Children Still Poisoned"
  2. "Lawmakers, Activists Call for Better Enforcement of Md. Lead-Paint Laws"
  3. "Baltimore Lawmakers Eye New Bid To Ease Lead-Paint Industry Litigation"

Judges' comments: Compelling case studies and the savvy use of public health and housing records allowed reporters at the Baltimore Sun to show how Maryland's program to protect kids from lead paint poisoning is poorly enforced, resulting in hundreds of poisoning cases in 2015. Judges were impressed by the writing, multimedia elements and research that brought this story home.

 

Third Place

"Unsettling Dust" by Mark Graves, Teresa Mahoney, Lynne Palombo, Steve Suo and Fedor Zarkhin for The Oregonian (print); OregonLive (online)

Story links:

  1. "Unsettling Dust: Hundreds of Portland Homes Demolished with Asbestos Inside"
  2. "How Oregon's Construction Industry Got the State To Back off Asbestos Rules"
  3. "Oregon Penalties for Failure To Remove Asbestos Can Pale Next to Real Estate Profits"
  4. "Found with Asbestos: North Portland Demolition Prompts Fines"
  5. "Asbestos in Portland Home Demolitions: How We Did the Analysis"
  6. "How Oregon's Construction Industry Got the State To Back off Asbestos Rules"
  7. "Oregon Penalties for Failure To Remove Asbestos Can Pale Next to Real Estate Profits"
  8. "Found with Asbestos: North Portland Demolition Prompts Fines"

Judges' comments: Unsettling Dust was a winning example of how to combine data analysis with street-level reporting. The result was a compelling multimedia package that revealed how Oregon's ineffective state and municipal policies for reducing asbestos exposures are putting the public and members of the work force at risk.

 

Honorable Mention

"Kentucky Environmental Sanctions Plummet Under Beshear" by Erica Peterson for WFPL and other public radio stations around Kentucky, and on wfpl.org

Story links:

  1. "Kentucky Environmental Sanctions Plummet Under Beshear"
  2. "With Enforcement Lax, Kentucky Waterways Appear More Polluted"

Judges' comments: Kentucky Sanctions Plummet took an exhaustive look at environmental sanctions issued under several governors. The painstaking research of public records exposed a sharp decline in environmental enforcement, and strong writing painted the issue on an accessible canvas.

 

Honorable Mention

"Weed Killers in Oregon's Forests " by Rob Davis for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Story links:

  1. "Whistleblower Videos Reveal Helicopter Spraying Workers with Weed Killers"
  2. "How Average Oregonians Challenged The Timber Industry – And Lost"
  3. "Oregon Agriculture Agency Blew off Another Complaint About Helicopter Spraying Weed Killers"
  4. "After Weed Killers Drift, Oregon Gets Tough with Helicopter Sprayer"

Judges' comments: It's hard to go wrong when a source who was exposed to pesticide spray coughs blood into a towel repeatedly during an interview. But this entry went far beyond strong anecdotal reporting. It used a whistleblower's interviews, astounding video and deep research to build an authoritative depiction of regulatory capitulation to Oregon's powerful timber industry.

 

Honorable Mention

"Florida Censors Terms 'Climate Change' and 'Global Warming'" by Tristram Korten for FCIR.org, and Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times, Florida Times Union et al.

Story links:

  1. "In Florida, Officials Ban Term 'Climate Change'"
  2. "As Gov. Scott Denies Ban, 'Climate Change' Order Reported at Other Agencies"
  3. "Federal, State Officials Respond to 'Climate Change' Controversy"
  4. "In 'Climate Change' Controversy, A Tale of Two Agencies"
  5. "Climate Change: A Tale of Two Governors"

Judges' comments: Strong sources, written correspondence and research of government records helped reveal a Florida governor’s attempt to wipe out official references to climate change. That reporting invited public scrutiny and moved state and federal officials to act.

 

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market

First Place

"The Middle East: A Portrait of an Environment Under Attack" by Peter Schwartzstein for National Geographic, TakePart, The Guardian, Quartz

Story links:

  1. "Iraq's Famed Marshes Are Disappearing — Again"
  2. "Farming the Sahara"
  3. "If Climate Change Doesn’t Sink Alexandria, Egypt’s Official Incompetence Will"
  4. "Sudan's New Gold Rush: Miners Risk Their Lives in Search of Riches"
  5. "The Climate-Change Refugee Crisis Is Only Just Beginning"

Judges' comments: For all the focus on the region’s politics, the Middle East suffers from a lack of environmental coverage. Peter Schwartzstein’s richly reported, deeply researched and well sourced dispatches reveal a region in peril. Ecosystems are damaged, but political questions are still a central feature in Schwartzstein’s writing. How will Egypt feed itself? he asks in a story that questions government plans to cultivate the Sahara. He documents the failure of Egyptian authorities to address rising seas that eat the foundations of Alexandria, the historic port city. He visits gold miners in Sudan, where workers toil in mercury-soaked pits, and fishermen in the Iraqi marshes, which are shrinking yet again. Vivid and comprehensive, the five entries amount to exceptional reporting.

 

Second Place

"Environmental Beat Reporting" by Josephine Marcotty for Star Tribune

Story links:

  1. "Rancher Believes We Can Save Bison by Eating Them"
  2. "Climate a Culprit in Walleye's Decline"
  3. "Hog-Lot Fight Looms Along Lake Superior"
  4. "PolyMet Mine Water Could Flow North, Toward BWCA"
  5. "Confusion Surrounds Buffer Law And The Bodies Of Water It Covers"

Judges' comments: Josephine Marcotty’s stories stand out for her strong writing and her ability to both personalize and globalize Minnesota’s environmental issues. She can move the reader from the crack of a rifle to the issues besetting America’s prairies; from a battle over a hog farm to how extreme storms can impact water quality; and from irritation over the depletion of a fish to how climate change affects species diversity. She succeeds as a beat reporter because she clarifies complex issues while making readers aware of what local communities are dealing with and how those issues resonate beyond the state’s borders

 

Third Place

"Communities on the Edge of Climate Change" by Sam Eaton for PRI's The World

Story links:

  1. "Here's What Happens When Increasingly Severe Weather Meets Deforestation"
  2. "'God Commanded' Family Planning, Says This Muslim Leader in Flood-Ravaged Malawi"
  3. "After the Floods Come the Human Traffickers, But These Girls Are Fighting Back"
  4. "Tanzania Is Trying To Turn the Charcoal Trade from an Enemy to a Friend of the Forest"
  5. "Zanzibar's 'Solar Mamas' Flip the Switch on Rural Homes, Gender Roles"

Judges' comments: Focusing on poor communities in Africa and South Asia, Eaton found interesting and unexpected links between rising sea levels and child trafficking in the Sunderbans, and between devastating floods and greater enthusiasm for birth control in Malawi. In his piece on Tanzania's efforts to make its rural charcoal industry more sustainable, he clearly and compellingly explained a campaign that must both reform traditional production methods and eliminate an enormous black market driven by urban demand. While highlighting local voices and local solutions, this series helped U.S. listeners better understand some of the global challenges created by climate change.

 

Honorable Mention

"Beat Reporting" by Hal Bernton for The Seattle Times

Story links:

  1. "Dumping of Halibut Sparks Fight Among North Pacific Fishing Fleets"
  2. "Seattle Company Has Worst Rate of Halibut Dumping"
  3. "How Oso Changed Logging in State: 'We Look at Hillsides Different Now'"
  4. "Burning Rain Forest Raises Concern About Future"
  5. "Snowpack Drought Has Salmon Dying in Overheated Rivers"
  6. "Water Theft Is Symptom of Bigger Troubles in Wapato Irrigation Project"

 

Honorable Mention

"Coverage of Florida Environmental Issues" by Craig Pittman for Tampa Bay Times and tampbay.com

Story links:

  1. "Study Finds High Incidence of Respiratory Problems in Oil Spill Cleanup Workers"
  2. "Over Scientists' Objections, Rancher Pushes Panther Policy"
  3. "To Boost State Park Funds, DEP Considers Allowing Hunting"
  4. "Hunting Season Opens on Bears Across Florida"
  5. "Gov. Rick Scott As Environmental Champion? Yes, Says Foundation Headed By Developer"

 

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market

First Place

"Beat Reporting on the American West" by Jonathan Thompson for High Country News

Story links:

  1. "Lessons from Boom and Bust in New Mexico"
  2. "Gold King Mine Water Was Headed for the Animas, Anyway"
  3. "When Our River Turned Orange"
  4. "Unlocking the Mystery of the Four Corners Methane Hot Spot"
  5. "Could Fugitive Methane Help Out Remote Communities?"

Judges' comments: Whether tackling the fallout from the worst oil bust in a generation, methane leaks or the devastating pollution of a river, Jonathan Thompson's reporting breaks down complex environmental and energy issues and explains them in detail to readers without taking an industry or environmental side. Particularly impressive was the access Thompson gained to Aztec Well. The oil-and-gas services company's experiences in New Mexico's San Juan Basin gave Thompson a window into the local community and allowed him to show readers what it's like to be a community dependent on the fossil fuel industry in both boom and bust.

 

Second Place

"Western New York Environmental Woes" by Dan Telvock, for www.investigativepost.org

Story links:

  1. "Update: Buffalo’s Lead Poisoning Problem"
  2. "Mayor Backtracks on Lead Pledge"
  3. "State Behind Curve on Lead Poisoning"
  4. "Landfill with Love Canal Legacy Still Poses Danger"
  5. "Water Woes at Gallagher Beach"

Judges' comments: Dan Telvock's dogged reporting on water contamination and lead poisoning holds local officials accountable on behalf of Buffalo residents. His use of data showed that more children in Buffalo suffer from elevated levels of lead in their blood compared to surrounding communities, like Rochester, where officials take a more aggressive approach to combat lead poisoning. Another story highlights the lackadaisical response from officials to reports of odors, tainted water and unsafe conditions at a landfill site where Love Canal waste had been buried years ago. The community is fortunate to have such an investigative soul in its midst.

 

Third Place

"Farming in the California Drought" by Lesley McClurg for Capital Public Radio, National Public Radio's Morning Edition

Story links:

  1. "California Drought Changes What Farmers Grow"
  2. "New Growing Technique Relieves Drought Stricken Avocado Farmers"
  3. "Almond Rush Raises Tough Questions During Dry Times"
  4. "Farmworkers Hit the Hardest by the Drought"

Judges' comments: Lesley McClurg's radio pieces on farming during the California drought are great examples of how radio can pull listeners in and provide them with a deeper understanding of an issue. McClurg provides us with a window into the difficult decisions farmers face when the water dries up. We come to understand that changing weather and climate are nothing new to this region. McClurg's pieces give voice to those affected — from farm owners to the migrant field workers.

 

Honorable Mention

"Environmental Beat Reporting" by Laura Arenschield for The Columbus Dispatch

Story links:

  1. "No One Told Them: Officials Hid Lead Contamination from the Public"
  2. "Bakken Oil Trains Roll Across City"
  3. "Green Monster"
  4. "Little Scioto Cleanup Meanders"
  5. "Injection Wells Spur Concerns"

Judges' comments: Laura Arenschield shows the importance of having a solid environmental beat reporter covering a community. She covers a wide variety of important issues — from lead contamination to oil trains to algal blooms — with a clear writing style, while providing the reader with important context. Her reporting on wastewater from oil-and-gas production operations being disposed of in deep injection wells in Athens County, Ohio is a particularly good example of reporting that sheds light on a hot-button issue.

 

Honorable Mention

"Environment and Human Rights in Guatemala" by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay

Story links:

  1. "Nickel Mine, Lead Bullets: Maya Q’eqchi’ Seek Justice in Guatemala and Canada"
  2. "Mining and Energy Contracts Under Investigation as Corruption Scandals Rock Guatemala"
  3. "Damming Dissent: Community Leaders Behind Bars in Guatemala After Opposing Hydro Projects"
  4. "Militarization and Murders Stifle Anti-Mining Movement in Guatemala"
  5. "Guatemalan Activist Murdered After Court Suspends Palm Oil Company Operations"

Judges' comments: Sandra Cuffe's reporting in Guatemala is a service to her readers and the disenfranchised, digging into complex situations and human rights issues related to conflicts over natural resources. Her stories paint an eye-opening picture of indigenous people who have been fighting for their ancestral lands — and lives — in the face of state and international mining interests whose security and police forces too often turn to violence.

 

Honorable Mention

"Beat Reporting in Alaska" by Yereth Rosen for Alaska Dispatch News

Story links:

  1. "What Climate Change Looks Like in Alaska Now"
  2. "Some Alaska Animals May Benefit from Climate Change While Others Suffer, Studies Say"
  3. "Another Unusually Warm Winter Forecast for Alaska"
  4. "Shell's Chukchi Failure the Latest in Decades-Long Series of Offshore Arctic Flops"
  5. "Myths About Shell's Arctic Alaska Pullout Persist"

Judges' comments: Yereth Rosen’s reporting on climate change and drilling in Alaska combines science, data and history to put environmental issues into context and explain them in a simple, but effective way. Rosen’s willingness to tackle ambitious stories shows through in her piece on what climate change in Alaska looks like today, while another story brings home the difficulties of offshore drilling in the Arctic by detailing a long history of project flops.

 

Outstanding Feature Story

First Place

"A Father, a Son, a Family Farm and a Conflict Over Chemicals" by Patricia Callahan for Chicago Tribune

Judges' comments: An elegant, well-reported, nuanced look at chemicals in industrial farming. Also a fine portrait of a family on the land. This reporter from an urban paper took the time to really understand the challenges and processes of moving away from chemicals, and came away with a nuanced, eloquently told story that gave us all an important look at 21st century farming in the Midwest heartland. A nearly perfect feature.

 

Second Place

"Our Rising Oceans" by Shane Smith for HBO

Judges' comments: A stunning look at the frontline of climate change that takes us to Antarctica and Bangladesh. The piece confronts head on some of the arguments of climate skeptics as the reporter clearly lays out the science behind melting ice and rising sea levels. The piece is well-paced, using excellent footage and compelling visuals.

 

Third Place

"They Shoot Kangaroos, Don't They?" by Paul Kvinta for Outside magazine

Judges' comments: A deeply reported, compelling story that takes us inside the grisly world of culling Australia's kangaroo population. This journalist spent serious time on the ground with people both fighting to protect the kangaroos and those who kill them and came away with a powerful tale. Energetic, ambitious reporting of a fascinating wildlife conflict. Especially impressive that Kvinta found such colorful characters and portrayed them, and their wildly divergent perspectives, with respect. 

 

Honorable Mention

"Life at Hell's Gate" by Douglas Fox for Scientific American, July 2015

Judges' comments: A fascinating piece on the discovery of abundant, complex organisms in the deep, dark ocean, under an ice shelf in Antarctica, where scientists thought none would exist. This story presents intriguing new, mind-blowing scientific discoveries with clear and colorful explanatory reporting on the findings, and on the process of exploration.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Messengers" by Brooke Jarvis for Pacific Standard

Judges' comments: Unusual, disturbing story about how albatrosses are dying by the thousands because of the plastics they consume, but more broadly about how to balance environmental messaging to get people to care about environmental issues in a way that leads to action, not despair. A hard and rewarding story that goes beyond the basic narrative — the birds — to question philosophical principles around environmentalism, our actions, and messaging. Excellent writing and strong photos help this piece to stand out.

 

Honorable Mention

"Death in the Amazon: An Activist, a Mine and a Mystery" by Daniel Collyns for The Guardian

Judges' comments: An investigation into the death of an environmental activist who opposed a huge metals mine being developed by a Chinese company in Ecuador, on Shuar territory. This story offers a disturbing look into the world of environmental activists who, in too many nations, put their lives at risk when they take a stand. Solid reporting about mining and indigenous land rights, and fine use of video to complement the text.

 

Outstanding Explanatory Reporting

First Place

"Septic Infrastructure in the United States" by Brett Walton for Circle of Blue

Judges' comments: This eye-opening series shines the spotlight on an under-the-radar threat to public health — the fact that nearly one-fifth of American households, plus countless rural and suburban businesses, churches and schools, do not flush their toilet waste into a public sewer. Instead, they use septic tanks that allow the liquid to move through perforated pipes into the soil, where naturally occurring bacteria are supposed to break it down before it reaches streams or groundwater. The low-cost, low-tech means of waste treatment is especially common in New England and the South. But Brett Walton reports how these aging systems are an overlooked source of water pollution and disease transmission — such as fecal bacteria, norovirus, cryptosporidium and hookworm. Each story in Walton’s five-part series stood solidly on its own, with elegant writing and clear explanations. Together, the stories make up a comprehensive assessment of the problem: the “nitrogen bomb” caused by these leaks, leading to ecosystem collapse in bays and marshes in Long Island; disease outbreaks due to inadequate sanitation in rural Alabama; population growth that overtaxes the environment’s ability to absorb the waste; insufficient data collection to fully understand the magnitude of the problem; a hodgepodge of state regulations but no federal standards, and nearly nonexistent inspections of these septic systems by local government.

 

Second Place

"Unequal Risk" by Jim Morris for The Center for Public Integrity

Judges' comments: The series takes on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not protecting worker safety. It shows how the agency is "suffering from battered-agency syndrome" and, due to industry pressure, has set standards for workers' toxic exposure that are far weaker than regulations for the general public. The Center for Public Integrity filed multiple Freedom of Information Act and state public information requests and analyzed several dense datasets. The reporters found instances where known hazards went unaddressed for more than 40 years. Most of OSHA's 470 exposure limits are, by the agency's own admission, hopelessly outdated. The stories, videos and interactive graphics are packed with history and science, with the reporters translating complex ideas into clear, everyday English. But where the series really shines is by introducing readers to people in the prime of their lives who have been harmed or killed by silica dust, asbestos and the paint-stripping solvent methylene chloride, illustrating the problem in an incredibly poignant way. The poignancy of these people's lost potential is intensified by the point made by the reporters: The exposures they suffered are often legal in the United States and remain unaddressed after decades. Other stories document how victims of occupational illness have little chance of success in state workers' compensation systems that are larded with industry-friendly rules.

 

Third Place

"Pesticide's Risks Tossed Aside" by Patricia Callahan for Chicago Tribune

Story links:

  1. "Weedkiller's Revival Is Cause for Concern"

Judges' comments: In the tradition of “Silent Spring,” Patricia Callahan has uncovered a suspicious rule change by the EPA that would allow an herbicide linked to cancer and other health problems to be used at levels that the World Health Organization and several countries, including China, consider unsafe. An ingredient in Agent Orange, 2,4-D was proven by the manufacturer itself, Dow Chemical, to cause kidney lesions. But with the long-predicted rise of super weeds in the wake of GMO crops, Monsanto’s Roundup is no longer effective as a weed killer and farmers are looking for alternatives. Callahan dug through thousands of pages of government and corporate records dating back three decades and crunched the numbers herself. Then she carefully walked readers through an opaque regulatory process that saw federal officials tinker with the math at every step to favor an increase in the use 2,4-D. Callahan’s excellent watchdog reporting has sounded the alarm on a weed killer that we could all be consuming at unsafe levels in the near future. Her work has prompted a congressional inquiry into why the EPA only considered potential harm to plants in its ruling rather than any harm to human health.

 

Honorable Mention

"Poverty's Poison" by Michael Hawthorne for Chicago Tribune

Story links:

  1. "Lead Paint Poisons Poor Chicago Kids As City Spends Millions Less on Cleanup"
  2. "Studies Link Childhood Lead Exposure, Violent Crime"
  3. "Could Chicago Prevent Childhood Lead Poisoning Before It Happens?"
  4. "Federal Housing Policy Leaves Poor Kids At Risk Of Lead Poisoning"

Judges' comments: Michael Hawthorne’s series highlights how peeling paint, shrinking government oversight and general bureaucracy hurt society's most vulnerable children. Through dogged and relentless work, Hawthorne dug up records that provided a startling statistic: that in Chicago's poverty-stricken neighborhoods, the number of children being poisoned by lead was higher in 2013 than it was five years earlier. The finding was shocking, coming at a time when city officials were scaling back Chicago's lead abatement program, thinking the problem was solved because kids in more affluent neighborhoods were fine. To drive home the affects of this environmental injustice, Hawthorne provided vivid first-hand accounts of the plight of families altered by the toxic, brain-damaging effects of the lead, and he documented the link between lead exposure in childhood and violent crime and incarceration in adolescence and early adulthood. He also documented how government agencies and elected leaders failed to control lead exposure in poor neighborhoods. Ultimately, Hawthorne's work led U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro to pledge a federal crackdown on landlords who don't resolve lead paint problems in government-subsidized housing. Hawthorne's work was a public service to Chicago and the nation, combining strong investigative journalism with insightful and vivid personal accounts of a problem that threatens the health of children.

 

Honorable Mention

"Before We Drown We May Die of Thirst" by Kenneth Weiss for Nature Magazine and Nature.com

Judges' comments: Weary of hyped stories trumpeting the impending disappearance of small island nations beneath the sea, Ken Weiss traveled to the Republic of Kiribati, a string of atolls along the equator midway between Hawaii and Australia. Digging into the nuance of the science that was at play, Weiss skillfully illustrates that climate change and its effects are more complex than some report – yet that detail and in-depth understanding make the stories of people affected even more poignant and compelling. With vivid writing, Weiss takes readers with him to Kiribati, allowing us to feel the claustrophobia of rising seas around these tiny strips of land that are just a few feet above the ocean level, with increasingly dense clusters of neighbors and clean groundwater falling ever further out of reach. Weiss shows us how the immediate problem is not too much water from floods. It’s too little clean drinking water as rising seas turn wells to salt water – a problem magnified by the poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation practices that he documents.

 

Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

First Place

"The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey" by Deborah Cramer

Published by Yale University Press

Judges' comments: Judges were impressed by the painful beauty and eloquence of Deborah Cramer's writing; one saw "The Narrow Edge" as a story of loss and hopeful restoration while another said the book "represents everything about Rachel Carson's legacy that the book award stands for." In her book, Cramer follows the 19,000-mile migration of an endangered shorebird called the red knot, which depends on horseshoe crab eggs for survival. So do humans: An FDA-approved biomedical use of the crabs' blood enables the detection of bacterial contamination in human vaccines, heart stents and more. Much like how Rachel Carson revealed the impact of DDT on birds and people, Cramer reports how the human footprint is hurting not only an avian creature — but us, too. One of the book's most thought-provoking questions is this: Must every bird prove its financial worth? The essence of this book is summed up by one judge who said that Cramer "combines a deft touch with her narrative and some serious reporting on the science, as well as a subtle flavor of political philosophy."

 

Honorable Mention

"Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider's Stand Against the World's Most Powerful Industry" by Andrew Nikiforuk

Published by Greystone Books

Supplemental materials: "Fracking Regulation on Trial in Andrew Nikiforuk's 'Slick Water'," TheTyee.ca, November 16, 2015 by Robyn Smith.

Judges' comments: Hard-nosed, gutty investigative journalism by a real pro. Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, who became the first Canadian to win SEJ's Rachel Carson Environment Book Award when he took home top honors in 2009 for "Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent," delivers another book that has a beautifully written narrative and fiercely determined voice. "Slick Water" follows a seven-year saga of Alberta-based biologist Jessica Ernst, a longtime oil patch consultant who fought the powers that be to hold government and industry accountable for destroying the environment with fracking processes. It's an inspirational tale of someone who stood up for the environment in the face of extreme adversity, or — as one judge put it, a "story of the women in the fracking horror show." Nikiforuk connects dots from coast to coast in the United States and Canada, making a bold case for this claim: "Men do not understand the courage of ordinary women."

 

Honorable Mention

"Reclaimers" by Ana Maria Spagna

Published by University of Washington Press

Judges' comments: Another book that goes beyond the obvious. "Reclaimers" takes a step back and makes readers think about what's at stake when humans have the audacity to think they're reclaiming nature. Part memoir, part environmental history, it's an eye-opener journey book with strong personal narrative about the American West and the moral high ground humans take. Ana Maria Spagna inspired one judge to take "page after page of notes reading this more hopeful than expected search for a moral high ground as we ask, 'What have we done to our world?'" The author, who lives in a small, Pacific Northwest town accessible only by boat, weaves interviews with locals, Native Americans, tree talkers, flower sniffers and you name it into a delightful yarn as she lays out a history of government monitoring rather than maintenance. One judge called it "personal storytelling at its best."


Esteemed Judges, 2016 SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment

  • Erin Ailworth
  • Sven Erik Anderson
  • Patrick D. Beach
  • Hal Bernton
  • Dieter Bradbury
  • Mark Brush
  • Murray Carpenter
  • Randy Evans
  • Samuel J Fretwell III
  • Erica Gies
  • Thomas B. Henry
  • Coco Liu
  • Mary Mazzocco
  • Mark Neuzil
  • Anne Paine
  • Patti Parson
  • Douglas Struck
  • JoAnn Myer Valenti
  • Brett Walton
  • Bernice Yeung
  • Irina Zhorov

2016 Awards Committee

Co-Chairs:
Perry Beeman, Business Record
James Bruggers, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal

Committee Member:
Emilia Askari, Independent Journalist
Beth Daley, Center for Investigative Reporting
Susan Sharon, Maine Public Radio

Director of SEJ Awards

Chris Bruggers, Associate Director, Society of Environmental Journalists   (502) 641-1844