In These Hard Times, Enviro Stories Take Major Prizes, Honors

July 15, 2009

 

Wildfires. Toxic chemicals in everyday life. Lax federal regulation. Overseas dumping of U.S. waste. Coal ash.

Coverage of those environmental subjects by a variety of news outlets was honored recently in three major national journalism competitions – the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes, 2008 George Polk Awards and the 2008 Sigma Delta Chi Awards of the Society of Professional Journalists. The Pulitzer and SPJ winners were announced in April, the Polk winners in February.

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 Reporters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won the Polk Award for environmental reporting and were cited as finalists for investigative reporting by the Pulitzer judges for their series "Chemical Fallout." The examination of hazardous chemicals in everyday products last year had won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism and the SPJ award for nondeadline reporting by a large newspaper.

Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger were praised by the Polk judges for "castigating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for failing to monitor, regulate and ultimately ban toxins found in everyday materials, from 'microwave safe' plastics to baby bottles. Their reports about chemicals such as bisphenolA, or BPA, which causes neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals, reverberated from t he halls of Congress to homes and schools across America."

Pulitzer judges cited Rust and Kissinger "for their powerful revelations that the government was failing to protect the public from dangerous chemicals in everyday products, such as some 'microwave-safe' containers, stirring action by Congress and federal agencies."

The series reported these key findings:

"U.S. regulators promised a decade ago to screen more than 15,000 chemicals for effects on the endocrine system. So far, not one has been screened."

"The government's proposed tests lack new measures that would spot dangerous chemicals older screens could miss."

"Hundreds of products have been banned in countries around the world but are available here without warning."

Rust and Kissinger have pursued the story. The lead on a story published May 16: "As federal regulators hold fast to their claim that a chemical in baby bottles is safe, e-mails obtained by the Journal Sentinel show that they relied on chemical industry lobbyists to examine bisphenolA's risks, track legislation to ban it and even monitor press coverage."

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 Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer for explanatory reporting for a five-part series, "Big Burn," which examined the growth and cost of wildfires.

The Pulitzer citation recognized the pair "for their fresh and painstaking exploration into the cost and effectiveness of attempts to combat the growing menace of wildfires across the western United States."

The Associated Press reported that the reporters "spent 15 months on their series, interviewing scores of firefighters and contractors, sifting through 43 plastic tubs of financial documents, and traveling as far afield as Australia."

Boxall and Cart reported in the lead article: "A century after the government declared war on wildfire, fire is gaining the upper hand. From the canyons of California to the forests of the Rocky Mountains and the grasslands of Texas, fires are growing bigger, fiercer and costlier to put out. And there is no end in sight."

Highlights of subsequent series installments:

Fire commanders "are often pressured to order firefighting planes and helicopters into action even when they won't do any good."

"More and more Americans are moving into fire-prone canyons and woodlands" where inadequate roads mean that "in a wildfire, everyone may not be able to get out safely."

Threatening to transform "the cultural imagery of the West," a fire cycle fueled by non-native plants "is wiping sagebrush from vast stretches of the Great Basin."

"Wildfire is a pervasive danger in Australia, just as in much of theWestern U.S.," but many Australians protect lives and property themselves instead of relying on professional firefighters.

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A"60 Minutes" segment on the dumping of electronic wastes in China won two top prizes for CBS News' long-running newsmagazine show – the Polk Award for television reporting and the SPJ award for television investigative reporting in the category for networks, syndication services and program services.

Sharing the award for "The Wasteland" were correspondent Scott Pelley, producer Solly Granatstein and co-producer Nicole Young.

According to the Polk Awards announcement, "the trio divulged how some American companies that are paid to recycle electronic waste have instead dumped it in China, which has led to environmental despoliation and severe health risks. After the '60 Minutes' crew tracked a Denver recycling company's shipment to southern China, the firm lost its contract and the EPA began investigating dozens of other suspect recycling businesses. " In announcing the award, CBS News said that "60 Minutes ventured to one of the most toxic places on Earth — a town in China where you can't breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead.

"Much of the poison is coming out of the homes, schools and offices of America. The story is about how your best intentions to be green can be channeled into an underground sewer that flows from the United States and into the wasteland. That wasteland is piled with the burning remains of some of the most expensive, sophisticated stuff that consumers crave. And Pelley discovered that the gangs who run the place wanted to keep it a secret."

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 Investigations that spotlighted regulatory shortcomings at the EPA earned recognition for reporters at two news organizations. Douglas P. Guarino of Inside EPA won SPJ's award for public service in newsletter journalism. An entry from John Shiffman, John Sullivan and Tom Avril of the Philadelphia Inquirer was named as a Pulitzer finalist for national reporting.

Guarino was honored "for articles detailing EPA plans to weaken drinking water cleanup standards in the event of a 'dirty' bomb attack," according to an announcement of the SPJ award in Inside EPA. The newsletter said that Guarino's reporting "is responsible, at least in part, for an increased public focus on EPA's decision-making over the policy," which the Obama administration put on hold pending further review.

In January 2008, Guarino's initial story on the issue was headlined "Draft EPANuclear GuideMayWeaken Superfund Removal Standards." Follow-up stories in April 2008 were headlined "EPA Nuclear Emergency Guide Prompts Alarm Among Agency Staff, States" and "EPA Plans to Limit Access To New Guide For Chemical Emergencies."

The Pulitzer judges cited Shiffman, Sullivan andAvril of the Inquirer "for their exhaustive reports on how political interests have eroded the mission of the Environmental ProtectionAgency and placed the nation's environment in greater jeopardy, setting the stage for remedial action."

In an introductory blurb to the online version of the "Smoke and Mirrors" project, the Inquirer said that the "four-part series details how the Bush administration weakened the EPA. It installed a pliant agency chief, Stephen L. Johnson. Under him, the EPAcreated pro-industry regulations later thrown out by courts. It promoted a flawed voluntary program to fight climate change. It bypassed air pollution recommendations from its own scientists to satisfy the White House."

In a March follow-up story, the three Inquirer staff members reported that the Obama administration intended to close down an EPAprogram called "Green Club" that they had highlighted in the series. They said the Green Club was an effort "by the Bush Administration that rewards voluntary pollution controls by hundreds of corporations with reduced environmental inspections and less stringent regulation, according to EPA sources and internal emails."

The "Smoke and Mirrors" investigation had found that "the program lauded companies with suspect environmental records, spent millions on recruiting and publicity and failed to independently confirm members' environmental pledges" and "became so desperate to find new members...that it turned to gift shops and post offices to pad its numbers."

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 As The Beat noted in the last issue of SEJournal, local and regional news organizations earned positive notice for their attention to the massive coal ash spill that occurred last December when a Tennessee Valley Authority dam collapsed and buried homes and farmland.

Coverage by one news outlet, WBIR TV 10 of Knoxville, Tenn., the city's NBC affiliate, won the SPJ award for breaking news coverage by a small market television station. Honored were the Gannett station 's Alison Morrow, Gerry Owens and John Martin.


Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue

BILL DAWSON