Winners: SEJ 16th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

The Society of Environmental Journalists is proud to present the winners of the 2016-2017 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ's journalism contest is the world's largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics.

The judges had a difficult time selecting winners from among the truly great entries submitted this year. Out of the almost 400 entries, please see the winners below.

SEJ will honor this year's winners on Oct. 6, 2017 at a celebratory luncheon at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in conjunction with SEJ's 27th Annual Conference.

SEJ's 2017 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 2017 Distinguished Judges

 

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

 

First Place

"The Wet Princes of Bel Air" by Lance Williams, Michael Corey and Katharine Mieszkowski for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Story links:

Judges' comments:

Reveal's four-part series "The Wet Princes of Bel Air" asks a seemingly simple question: Who is California's biggest residential water guzzler? It took creative data mining and tenacious reporting for Lance Williams, Michael Corey and Katharine Mieszkowski of The Center for Investigative Reporting to expose the California moguls who used hundreds of millions of gallons of water on their lushly landscaped estates during the worst drought in the state's recorded history. California was happy to release the names and addresses of ordinary citizens who violated drought water use laws; one was fined $500 for watering his lawn on the wrong day. Yet there were no laws against using enormous amounts of water, and officials refused to release the names or addresses of those who did. Faced with an information blackout, The Reveal team literally had to create a scientific methodology based on satellite photographs, vegetation algorithms and deep dives into residential records to identify the 365 homeowners who used a million gallons of water a year or more, as well as seven Bel Air residents most likely to be the biggest guzzler of all at nearly 12 million gallons a year. Reveal’s name-and-shame exposé got impressive results: embarrassed water hogs cut their consumption by as much as 12 percent, and state lawmakers instituted fines for excessive water use. A powerful combination of traditional shoe-leather reporting and cutting-edge data mining, this compellingly written series is an inspiring example for other journalists to not take "no" for an answer when public officials hide behind a restrictive interpretation of public records laws.

 

Second Place

"Toxic City" by Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, Dylan Purcell and Jessica Griffin for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com

Judges' comments: While national attention has been focused on lead contamination in drinking water, a four-person team at the Philadelphia Inquirer took on the issue of entirely preventable lead poisoning from paint. What they exposed in their "Toxic City" series was shocking in its severity and prevalence. More than seven percent of Philadelphia’s children — twice the national average — have elevated lead levels, and many have levels several times the recommended action threshold. Yet, officials have ignored all but the worst cases and allowed negligent landlords to skate by. The reporters went beyond the numbers, wading through court documents and knocking on doors to put faces and names to both victims and perpetrators. The result was an emotionally powerful series that held accountable both individuals and a clearly flawed system.

 

Third Place

"Beyond Flint" by Laura Ungar, Alison Young and Mark Nichols for USA TODAY Network newspapers

Judges' comments: In the wake of the Flint water crisis, a team of reporters from USA Today wanted to know how many other drinking water suppliers across the country had similar lead contamination problems. It was a daunting task. Combing through EPA records from tens of thousands of water systems in all 50 states, the reporting team identified almost 2,000 systems with excessive lead levels — in some cases, even higher than in Flint. Yet state agencies and the EPA provide so little oversight that often the customers — including schools and day care centers — never knew there was a potent neurotoxin in their drinking water until the journalists told them. Reporting from the affected communities gave the series an emotional punch — and staying power, too, since USA Today Network newspapers have produced more than 100 local followup stories since the “Lead in Your Water” series began.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Poacher's Pipeline" by Deborah Davies for Al Jazeera Media Network

Judges' comments: The Al Jazeera Media Network’s 47-minute documentary "The Poacher’s Pipeline" took a fresh and powerful investigative angle on the familiar subject of rhino poaching. Not content to focus merely on the two ends of the pipeline — the African parks where poachers do their deadly work, and the Asian cities where consumers pay small fortunes for the ivory — the production team focused on the crucial middlemen. Reporting undercover with hidden cameras as they doggedly followed the money trail, the team showed how the smugglers have friends in very high places in the governments of South Africa and China. And yes, they named names.

 

 

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

 

First Place

"Toxic Armories" by Rob Davis for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Story links:

  1. Part 1: "National Guard inaction exposes communities to lead"
  2. Part 2: "Oregon armories earn millions, endanger thousands"
  3. "Road to armory records proves long and winding"
  4. "Lead poisoning in armories? Military cases poorly tracked"
  5. "National Guard halts public events in all lead-contaminated armories"

Judges' comments: This is the very model of an effective environmental investigation. When Oregonian reporter Rob Davis started checking into toxic lead levels in National Guard armories around the country, about 1,000 armories underwent new rounds of testing. Armories in seven states shut their doors. Two states offered voluntary blood testing to soldiers. And that was before the Oregonian had published a word. The information wasn’t easy to get. The National Guard’s central office wouldn’t cooperate, so Davis filed public records requests in all 50 states. He eventually gathered more than 23,000 pages from 41 states, which allowed the Oregonian to assemble a searchable database. Days after the series ran, the Guard closed its toxic armories to community groups; armories are typically used as community gathering places for weddings, dances and classes. Without the Oregonian’s effort, it’s hard to see how this cleanup would have occurred.

 

Second Place

"Unwell Water" by Kyle Bagenstose and Jenny Wagner for The Intelligencer

Story links:

  1. "Unclear and uncertain danger": PDF or URL
  2. "Left behind: Veterans question whether current illnesses were caused by exposure at base"
  3. "Taking a closer look: Analysis of cancer cluster study provides a different picture of cases"
  4. "The case for public blood tests for PFOA and PFOS"
  5. "Finding safe PFOA level is an uncertain science"

Judges' comments: This series shows what’s possible when a small, local paper pursues a story and doesn’t let go. Reporters at the Intelligencer spent years covering how the chemicals PFOS and PFOA had contaminated residential drinking water, publishing 12 investigative reports and more than 100 stories. They clearly explained the complex science of chemical exposure and potential cancer clusters, and showed how public officials had done little to protect residents from harm. The series triggered lawsuits, public pressure and political action at every level.

 

Third Place

"Pacific Outpost" by Anita Hofschneider, Dan Lin and Cory Lum for Honolulu Civil Beat

Judges' comments: This in-depth multimedia report examines the U.S. military's plans for a significant military buildup in Pacific island territories — and the serious environmental impacts that buildup could have on the region. Objectively reported, thoroughly documented and data-rich, this five-part series provides readers direct weblinks to more than 30 relevant primary federal documents from the U.S. EPA, National Park Service and U.S. Department of Defense. Anita Hofschneider's reporting details a history of negligence and broken promises by U.S. officials that resulted in past and existing damage to the islands' environment and the people who live there. Hofschneider's reporting raises, through an impressive array of interviews and documentation, the specter of more significant environmental harm in the future — if the military's plans for the region ignore the environmental sensitivity of the island chain.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Teflon Toxin Series" by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept

Story links:

  1. Part 7: "New Teflon Toxin Causes Cancer in Lab Animals"
  2. Part 8: "A Chemical Shell Game: How DuPont Concealed the Dangers of the New Teflon Toxin"
  3. Part 9: "Teflon Toxin Contamination Has Spread Throughout the World"
  4. Part 10: "DuPont May Dodge Toxic Lawsuits By Pulling a Disappearing Act"
  5. Part 11: "Under DuPont Bridge: The Teflon Toxin Goes to China"

Judges' comments: This multi-part series takes a hard look at the legal maneuvering some chemical manufacturers use to evade scrutiny of, and potential liability for, toxic chemicals they produce. Reporter Sharon Lerner’s series focuses primarily on the DuPont company and its manufacture of perfluorinated chemicals, or “PFCs”, which are used to make hundreds of consumer products. Lerner details the toxicity of those chemicals and documents the growing concern that the newest generation of PFCs may be worse than the ones they replaced.

 

Honorable Mention

"Science for Sale" by David Heath, Jim Morris and Jie Jenny Zou for publicintegrity.org, Vice.com, TheAtlantic.com

Story links:

  1. "Meet the ‘rented white coats’ who defend toxic chemicals: How corporate-funded research is corrupting America’s courts and regulatory agencies"
  2. "Making a cancer cluster disappear: After a record number of brain tumors at a chemical plant, industry launched a flawed study that obscured the extent of the problem"
  3. "Ford spent $40 million to reshape asbestos science: Stung by lawsuits, the automaker hired consultants to change the narrative on the risks of asbestos brakes"
  4. "Brokers of junk science?: Two scientific journals known for their industry ties have become go-to publications for researchers who minimize risks from chemicals"
  5. "Philip Morris uses chemical industry consultants to perpetuate 'light cigarette' myth"

Judges' comments: This exhaustive examination by the Center for Public Integrity — co-published with Vice.com and TheAtlantic.com — details the extent and impact of industry-funded science research and journals. Its effects are felt not only in courtrooms but in regulatory agencies that issue rules to try to prevent disease. Such research creates doubt where little or none existed. The CPI investigation gives insight into how this affects us all.

 

Honorable Mention

"Porter Ranch Gas Leak Investigation" by Mike Reicher, Ingrid Lobet, Susan Abram and Paul Penzella for Los Angeles Daily News, other Southern California News Group properties, inewsource.org

Story links:

  1. "SoCalGas knew of corrosion at Porter Ranch gas facility, doc shows"
  2. "What caused nosebleeds in Porter Ranch? New questions emerge"
  3. "How the Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon facility was a major polluter long before mammoth leak"
  4. "State natural gas wells exempt from key leak-detection test"
  5. "Aliso Canyon: Obama Administration to study national underground gas storage regulations"

Judges' comments: The judges were impressed by how the series dug deep into the systemic flaws behind the Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout. The reporters found that the facility’s owner knew its pipelines were at risk before the accident, and state regulators did not require crucial well integrity tests. The stories also raised important questions about the unknown causes and consequences of the health effects experienced by local residents.

 

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market

First Place

"Environment Beat Reporting" by Craig Welch for National Geographic

Story links:

  1. "The Blob That Cooked the Pacific"
  2. "Ocean Slime Spreading Quickly Across the Earth"
  3. "Mysterious New Whale Species Discovered in Alaska"
  4. "Huge Puffin Die-Off May Be Linked to Hotter Seas"
  5. "Orca Killed by Satellite Tag Leads to Criticism of Science Practices"

Judges' comments: Craig Welch’s stories showed how the mastery of a beat can produce compelling, cutting edge journalism. His piece on rising sea temperatures provided an understanding of why the phenomenon may be occurring and what warmer water has done to marine life. But he also broke news in writing about the discovery of a new species of whale. I was impressed by his crisp writing style and attention to detail. Thorough, beautiful writing ("where the sea curls a crooked finger around Alaska’s Kodiak Island."…"Sea wash muddies the pale fur of its face"); compelling and unforgettable storytelling; deep knowledge of place and scientific import. Rich, rich, rich.

 

Second Place

"Illegal Wildlife Trade Beat Reporting" by Rachel Nuwer for National Geographic, New York Times and PBS Nature

Story links:

  1. "Huge Haul of Slain Sea Turtles Tests Vietnam"
  2. "Do the World’s Three Remaining Northern White Rhinos Have a Future?"
  3. "Pangolins Released Into Wild May Be Recaptured and Eaten"
  4. "A Forgotten Step in Saving African Wildlife: Protecting the Rangers"
  5. "The Rare African Park Where Elephants Are Thriving"

Judges' comments: Rachel Nuwer made me feel like I was in Vietnam, witnessing the sad and unchecked devastation of wildlife, or in Africa, watching the last male northern white rhino live out his days. Her stories had an edge to them that stirred a sense of outrage. Great writing and reporting. I learned so much reading these detailed, finely crafted stories and I cared deeply about her subjects, most of which cannot speak for themselves. Most of all, she took me, the reader, along with her as she touched Sudan, the rhino, and as she unearthed the efforts (or lack of them) to track down who was killing the endangered sea turtles found in Vietnam. I was there. Overall, compelling and wide-ranging reporting on species and issues we know little about.

 

Third Place

"Tribal Energy Issues" by Ellen Gilmer for E&E News

Story links:

  1. "In fracking turf war, Utes 'don't pick fights to lose'"
  2. "Where oil and gas meet sacred lands, tribe defends 'last stronghold'"
  3. "Dakota Access drama stems from complex permitting scheme"
  4. "Protesters under watch as pipeline inches closer"
  5. "Inside the buried memo that could decide pipeline's fate"

Judges' comments: E&E news’ consistent in-depth reporting is amazing. Ellen Gilmer had a deep understanding of the issues of DAPL long before anyone else was there. Her writing is strong, descriptive and incredibly well-informed. This is an important and complex issue that she totally nailed. The stories were filled with compelling examples of what Native Americans on all sides of the oil and gas debate are saying, while providing an expert look at the landscape where many of these battles are playing out. Good job of taking me to the scene. Ellen’s encyclopedic knowledge of people, place and subject; her expert grasp of history, law and science; and her writer’s ability to translate difficult and arcane information made for great, illuminating reading. I feel certain there are very few people who could have written these stories … especially the way she wrote them.

 

Honorable Mention

"Coverage of Florida Environmental Beat" by Craig Pittman for Tampa Bay TImes

Story links:

  1. "Toxic algae bloom crisis hits Florida, drives away tourists"
  2. "Getting it wrong: Suncoast Parkway set to expand even as it fails to meet projections"
  3. "Endangered sparrows hatch in captivity, providing hope for species' future"
  4. "Florida wildlife officials delay bear hunt until at least 2017"
  5. "As polluted water disappeared in sinkhole, Mosaic avoided saying the 's-word'"

Judges' comments: Engaging, in-depth beat reporting. The kind of watchdog journalism that is rapidly disappearing. Craig Pittman’s entries were particularly impressive because they showed expertise on a variety of environmental issues, while including an accountability thread through all of them. Excellent writing, as well. This is why newspapers are invaluable to their communities. Craig’s work shines a light where it needs to be, and his reporting and writing bring what he finds home, where it matters, to the reader. Great work.

 

Honorable Mention

"Silicosis and Pollution: The Price of 'Progress'" by Patti Parson, Richard Coolidge, Fred de Sam Lazaro, Rakesh Nagar, Nicole See and Sara Just for PBS NewsHour

Story links:

  1. "Dusty mining conditions trap Indian workers with deadly lung disease"
  2. "Fighting to breathe in the world’s most polluted city"

Judges' comments: Two excellent stories with a standard newshour approach, but strong reporting, writing and high production values. Compelling stories told with deep reporting and haunting visuals.

Honorable Mention

"VICE News Tonight's Climate Desk" by Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Ruben Davis, Lee Doyle, Jika Gonzalez, Agnes Walton, Nelson Ryland and Hectah Arias for HBO

Story links:

  1. "America's Largest Reservoir Is at Dangerously Low Levels"
  2. "For Wild Horses, It's Ride Or Die"
  3. "America's First Offshore Wind Farm Just Started Producing Energy"
  4. "Coffee Collapse"
  5. "Trump Considers ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State"

Judges' comments: I loved watching and listening to the reporter tackle the variety of subjects presented in the entry. The stories were beautifully shot and the reporter was strong and appropriately tough. I really appreciated the effort to experiment with new styles and new approaches to video journalism. The future of environmental reporting in video format is in good hands with journalism such as this.

 

 

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market

First Place

"Environmental Reporting in Texas" by Naveena Sadasivam for Texas Observer

Story links:

  1. "Company Town"
  2. "Barging In"
  3. "Mine Games"
  4. "Texas Environmentalists: Kathleen Hartnett White Would be ‘Disaster’ as EPA Chief"
  5. "Energy Transfer Partners May Have Misled State to Secure Tax Break"

Judges' comments: Naveena Sadasivam’s work stands out on every level. Her stories from Texas are a peek into corners of environmental policy where few others have looked. In one, she tells the bizarre tale of a man who used his DJ name to hide his identity and swindle a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and the lack of recourse the goverment had afterward. Another relays the risk the Texas government takes with taxpayers’ money by allowing coal mines to insure themselves against liabilities. Sadasivam’s writing is direct and lively, and lends her longer stories a sense of clarity and lightness that carries the reader forward. The result? Environmental journalism that elucidates important and under-covered issues while also telling a compelling, digestible story.

 

Second Place

"Race, Inclusion and Environmental Justice" by Glenn R. Nelson for The Trail Posse, High Country News, HCN Syndication

Story links:

  1. "What if I’m not white?"
  2. "Why has the National Park Service gotten whiter?" | "Meet the aspiring ranger locked out by National Park Service practices" | "Inside a park succeeding at recruiting diverse employees"
  3. "How Shelton Johnson became the Buffalo Soldiers’ champion"
  4. "#whereisjose: The man forging a new path in the outdoors"
  5. "Seattle’s urban park ranger wants to bring diversity to the outdoors"

Judges' comments: Glenn Nelson’s work deftly tackles issues of race and diversity in the outdoors, repeatedly exploring the experiences that can make us fall in love with nature, and the social and economic circumstances, and cultural differences that can keep a person of color from finding and deepening those connections. His pieces grapple with the homogeneity that is exacerbating a decline in the national park system and limiting the breadth of the environmental movement. Mr. Nelson’s writing also resonates with personal insight, lending an emotional depth to his stories.

 

Third Place

"Western New York's Environmental Woes" by Dan M. Telvock for Investigative Post

Story links:

  1. "Radioactive hot spots pepper Niagara County"
  2. "Paying price for radioactive hotspots in Niagara"
  3. "Looking for Lead (in all the wrong places)"
  4. "Untested waters at two Erie County beach bars"
  5. "Lead poisoning worse than previously disclosed"

Judges' comments: Dan Telvock combines street-level reporting, aggressive mining of public records and interactive web builds to produce impressive and effective public service journalism. His stories on lax testing of water supplies, legacy radioactive waste and lead contamination inspired outrage and change, and that’s a rewarding outcome.

 

Honorable Mention

"Environment Beat Reporting" by Glynis Board, Alexandra Kanik and Jeffrey Alan Young for Ohio Valley ReSource (regional journalism collaborative) and partner stations

Story links:

  1. "Toxic Legacy: "Teflon" Chemical Sticks Around in Water Supplies"
  2. "Uncertainty Over EPA Grants That Sent $3.6B to Ohio Valley"
  3. "Power Play: Experts Say Killing Clean Power Plan Won’t Revive Coal"
  4. "The Flood Next Time: Warming Raises the Risk Of Disaster"
  5. "Hot Mess: How Radioactive Fracking Waste Wound up Near Homes and Schools"

Judges' comments: Climate change can be a difficult story to localize, but Glynis Board's examination of the aftermath of devastating floods in West Virginia presents a dire warning about the threats from extreme weather events. Her probe of the toxic legacy of the "Teflon" chemical — and the changing consensus of the health risks — was well complemented by an interactive map by Alexandra Kanik that provided even more information for the audience. This is great beat reporting that went well below the surface.

 

Honorable Mention

"Science and Technology" by Amelia Urry for Grist

Story links:

  1. "The future will be battery-powered"
  2. "Trump’s ban puts a chill on science and cleantech"
  3. "Apple’s recycling robot wants your old iPhone. Don’t give it to him."
  4. "If you think technology has no place in the national parks, think again"
  5. "Here’s everything we know about how to talk about climate change"

Judges' comments: Amelia Urry’s clearheaded reports for Grist land right in the sweet spot of informative and entertaining. Her solid reporting is served with a dose of fresh wit. Whether she is covering battery storage or the role technology plays in national parks, her writing — full of verve and curiosity — turns potentially unsexy topics into information-packed delights. In today’s deluge of science and tech writing, Urry’s work stands out.

 

Honorable Mention

"Coverage of the Extinction Crisis" by John R. Platt for Scientific American, TakePart, Hakai

Story links:

  1. "How Do You Stop a Marauding Bull Elephant Named Trump? Send in the Drones"
  2. "What's in the Box? A Long-Lost Species"
  3. "Faking Out Poachers With 3-D-Printed Sea Turtle Eggs"
  4. "Snails Are Going Extinct: Here's Why That Matters"
  5. "It’s Happening Now: Climate Change Is Killing Off the Yellow Cedar"

Judges' comments: Each of John Platt's stories was a delightful read with a serious and informative core. He struck an engaging tone, whether writing about using drones to keep escape-artist elephants safely confined to an African nature preserve, rediscovering extinct plant species or using 3-D printed turtle eggs to thwart poachers. His work is proof that serious doesn't have to mean sober.

 

Outstanding Feature Story

First Place

"The Strange Case of Tennie White" by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept

Judges' comments: A well-researched, finely written and disturbing investigation of contamination and injustice near a chemical plant in Mississippi. Lerner shows how federal prosecutors jailed environmental scientist and advocate Tennie White for a petty sampling infraction. Meanwhile, regulators were slow to acknowledge and remediate the contamination, and the corporate polluter, Kerr-McGee, restructured in order to avoid its environmental liabilities. None of those responsible for the pollution were imprisoned, a pattern Lerner notes is consistent with other large-scale environmental disasters, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. An excellent feature all around that not only is a good read, but provokes outrage and action.

 

Second Place

"The Uncertain Future of Puffin for Dinner" by Cheryl Katz for Hakai Magazine

Judges' comments: Katz paints a beautiful picture of a way of life that’s distant to many Americans — Atlantic puffin hunting in the Arctic. For centuries, the charismatic bird with its signature black and white coloration and bright orange beak has been vital to the lives of coastal people in the North Atlantic intertwining a need for food with a need for community. But as the birds’ numbers decline, another casualty of climate change and other human activities, the survival of this centuries’ old practice is called into question. Katz weaves together ecological realism with cultural relevance to create a tale of wonder and of longing and a recognition of the difficult tradeoffs, and inevitable losses, humans will have to make in order to preserve our place on the planet.

 

Third Place

"Hawaii's Crazy War Over Zombie Cats" by Paul Kvinta for Outside magazine

Judges' comments: In a comprehensive look at the problem of feral disease-carrying cats on Hawaii and how they are hurting other wildlife, Kvinta brings the readers to all sides of a contentious issue that is somehow both deadly serious and quirkily funny. He shows the problems the cats cause in the spread of toxoplasmosis — the parasite only can sexually reproduce in the gut of a feline — and what it does to other animals such as monk seals. He brings alive the people trying to get rid of the feral cats and those who are trying to save them and harbor them. Even the feral cat lovers — one of whom he visits at his home where 36 cats live, including a dozen who live in a backyard “cat-zebo” — don’t come off as crazy caricatures but real people.

 

Honorable Mention

"Delusion is the Thing with Feathers. Also, Hardship and Misery...and Hope." by Mac McClelland and Greg Kahn for Audubon

Story links:

Judges' comments: This elegantly crafted long magazine piece follows two ornithologists and the writer herself as they search for the lost and likely extinct Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in remote and forbidding Cuba. As beautiful as the bird is that they search for, the real beauty and the real story is in their journey.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Detective of Northern Oddities" by Christopher Allen Solomon for Outside magazine

Judges' comments: Solomon profiles Kathy Burek, a quirky, thoughtful, hard-working scientist with an unusual job: autopsying wild animals in Alaska. Along the way, readers learn about the animals that are struggling to keep up with a fast-warming climate, and how their carcasses might provide some insight into these changes. The feature provides a fresh, interesting angle on climate change, with lively, descriptive writing, and a very compelling protagonist.

 

Honorable Mention

"When Climate Change Starts Wars" by John Wendle for Nautilus

Judges' comments: It’s easy to imagine that climate change will cause conflicts in the distant future — John Wendle creates a compelling case that the future is now. By detailing how limited resources in Central Asia are already bringing tensions — and resulting clashes — to a boil in central Asia, Wendle creates a picture of the globe’s future if we don’t rein in climate change.

 

Outstanding Explanatory Reporting

First Place

"Carbon Wars" by Jamie Smith Hopkins, Jim Morris, Jie Jenny Zou, Chris Zubak-Skees (CPI); Greg Gilderman, Neil Katz, Jonathan Schienberg, Luis de Leon and Tik Root (weather.com); and Mathieu Skene, Hanaan Sarhan, Sweta Vohra, Jacquelynne Causey, Josh Rushing, Joel Van Haren, Warwick Meade and Luke Rohwrer (Al Jazeera English), for publicintegrity.org, weather.com, Al Jazeera English, USA TODAY Network outlets

Story links:

  1. "America's super polluters"
  2. "Here are the super polluters"
  3. "State cutbacks, recalcitrance hinder Clean Air Act enforcement"
  4. "'Get someone up here. We're all dying.'"

Judges' comments: This gripping multimedia series spotlights the nation's worst climate polluters and why US officials face certain limitations in their ability to respond. The storytelling throughout is an alluring mix of analytical and deeply human. In "America's super polluters," for example, the reporters used an original analysis to impressively rank the nation's top 22 polluters and present them in a fun interactive table. The storytelling goes further, however, explaining what this pollution means to people living in the surrounding communities, such as those suffering from asthma, and how regulators have tried to hold these companies accountable. With each installment in the series, the reporters continue to push the conversation forward, offering new thoroughly reported examples of regulatory weaknesses and cases of damaging pollution.

 

Second Place

"Chemical Breakdown" by Matt Dempsey, Mark Collette and Susan Carroll for Houston Chronicle

Story links:

  1. "Chemical Breakdown"
  2. "'It will take another disaster'"
  3. "Roadblocks to right-to-know law"
  4. "Deadly accidents, no answers"
  5. "In 1995, a warehouse exposed the city's shortcomings; it's now 2016 and nothing has changed"

Judges' comments: An impressive investigation into the level to which ordinary Americans in the Houston area, from heavily-industrialized urban areas to residents of supposedly comfortable suburbs, live in proximity to dangerous chemical plants. The Chronicle obtained the chemical inventories from more than 2,500 businesses and found that 80 percent of the 655 most dangerous facilities have at least 10,000 residents in a two-mile radius. The Chronicle's reporters detailed the extremely low levels of federal scrutiny of danger risk from both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, as well as the weak investigation and wall of secrecy erected by local governments in allowing companies to keep inventories secret, including Brazoria and Galveston, home to some of the highest concentrations of chemical plants in the world. The series reached deep into the human impact of living with chemical plants, focusing on an Air Liquide explosion that killed one worker and the agonizing recovery of a horrifically burned colleague. The explosion revealed the ineffective investigatory powers of the US Chemical Safety Board, with no consequences for the company three years later. In a particularly poignant moment of the series, the Chronicle compared the $132,000 OSHA fine for the sulfuric acid explosion death of refinery worker Jeff Davis with the $12 million fine from EPA for the very same explosion polluting a river. "Can you imagine telling Jeff Davis’ wife Mary and their five kids that the fine for the hazards associated with his death was one-fiftieth of the fine associated with killing fish and crabs?" asked former OSHA head Larry Michaels. The Chronicle's series should have all Houstonians and Americans asking that question.

 

Third Place

"Every Other Breath: Hidden Stories of Climate Change" by Tony Bartelme for The (Charleston, SC) Post and Courier

Story links:

  1. "Every Other Breath"
  2. "Chasing Carbon" (video)
  3. "Lowcountry on the edge"
  4. "Lowcountry on the edge" (video)
  5. The complete series

Judges' comments: The author uses elegant and accessible language with entertaining storytelling to make us understand the importance of tiny plankton, its precipitous decline and uncertain future tied to global warming.

 

Honorable Mention

"Obama's Dirty Secret" by Susanne Rust (Director, Energy & Environment Reporting Project, Columbia), Asaf Shalev, Elah Feder, Michael Phillis, Sonali Prasad, Hannah Furfaro, Gilda Di Carli, Eduardo Garcia (Fellows, EERP) and Jason Burke, Michael Slezak, Oliver Milman (The Guardian) for The Guardian

Story links:

  1. "How Obama's climate change legacy is weakened by US investment in dirty fuel"
  2. "Obama's dirty secret: the fossil fuel projects the US littered around the world"
  3. "Potential Export-Import Bank deals pose grave environmental threat, experts say"
  4. "Export-Import Bank gave $8.5bn to Mexico oil firm despite deadly accidents"
  5. "US has provided $315m in financing to supplier of mines accused of slave labor"

Judges' comments: The reporters behind this story worked hard to explain a contradiction in the Obama Administration's environmental record: little known federal loans to refineries and power plants abroad that fueled greenhouse gas production. They were not afraid to challenge the administration and delve into public records to tell the story on a little known federal program that has become very controversial.

 

Honorable Mention

"Danger Downstream" by Josephine Marcotty for Star Tribune

  1. "Mighty Mississippi at Perilous Bend"
  2. "Pollution Expands, Exacting High Toll"
  3. "Building a Model to Protect Rivers"

Judges' comments: The threat of pollution to rivers from big agricultural operations looms large in Minnesota. This compelling three-part series examines the value and vulnerability of these waterways. One of the story’s standout features is how it artfully introduces and explores through a mix of mediums (writing, photography and video) the many people relying on these waterways, all the while still articulating the magnitude of the problem and the obstacles to addressing it.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Price of Pork" by David Jackson, Gary Marx, Stacey Wescott and Madison Hopkins for The Chicago Tribune and chicagotribune.com

  1. "Pig Waste Poisons Rural Waterways"
  2. "The High Price of Cheap Pork"
  3. "Sen. Dick Durbin Urges Stronger Oversight of Illinois Hog Farming"
  4. "Hog Waste Spills Damage Illinois Waterways"
  5. "Waste Spill at Cargill Slaughterhouse Contaminates Waterways"

Judges' comments: Illinois is the nation’s fourth-leading pig seller and the Tribune exposed the level to which the explosion of pig farms has raised the pig confinement industry to the state’s leading polluter of rivers, killing hundreds of thousands of fish and angering and sickening rural residents with waste and foul manure gases. The newspaper found that the permitting for pig farms was far easier than for landfills and wind farms, with critics calling current regulations a ‘frontier-era timber blockade in the path of a bullet train.’ The series is also significant because lead reporter David Jackson conducted the investigation with 20 students from Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school, passing on the skills of explanatory writing and investigative skills to the next generation.

 

Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

First Place

"Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy" by Jennifer Grayson

Published by HarperCollins

Judges' comments: In her beautifully written and deeply researched book, Jennifer Grayson shows how North America and other parts of the world have been conditioned to accept manufactured formula as a viable — even preferred — substitute for breastfeeding. Judges saw parallels between "Unlatched" and equally legitimate questions raised by Rachel Carson in her landmark 1962 book, "Silent Spring," which showed how people were conditioned to accept the pesticide DDT as safe. With masterful prose and hard-hitting journalism, "Unlatched" is "an investigation into our industrialized food system, in this case its impact on what is arguably humanity's most important food — that [which] we feed infants at the start of life," according to one judge. Judges agreed "Unlatched" is an eye-opening book for broad audiences — not only expectant parents and nursing mothers. Another judge, in lauding the public service aspect of "Unlatched," said the book unveils an "industry-driven campaign, akin to the ongoing tobacco industry's unhealthy lure, to defer nature to profits."

 

Honorable Mention

"The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from A Secret World" by Peter Wohlleben (translated by Jane Billinghurst)

Published by Greystone Books

Judges' comments: Judges were impressed by the depth and risk-taking German forester Peter Wohlleben used to explain biological complexities of trees, down to little-known evidence of how they "communicate." Wohlleben "makes the provocative, convincing and utterly engaging case that trees are social beings," as one judge noted, adding that the author "defies conventional science writing to humanize trees: their pain, their memory and their care for one another, from suckling children to providing extra nutrition to elders." Another judge lauded the author for making clear "why forests matter on a global scale and what's threatening their survival." This gutsy, unconventional, folksy and highly readable book provides an outstanding and largely overlooked perspective into how trees interact with each other. Readers will never walk through a forest again in quite the same way.

 

Honorable Mention

"A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk" by Drew Harvell

Published by University of California Press

Judges' comments: A beautiful book that marries ocean science with art, "A Sea of Glass" recounts an incredible quest by Cornell University evolutionary biologist Drew Harvell as she searches the world for living counterparts crafted more than 150 years ago by father-and-son glass artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. As one judge noted, the book becomes so engaging it can aptly be described as "a love story in the first-person narrative not usually found in academic journals." Said another: "A Sea of Glass is just the sort of novel blend of art and science needed to draw broad audiences to the story of our oceans and the imperative to save them." Judges agreed the book is "strikingly original,” itself a work of art.

 


Esteemed Judges, 2017 SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment

  • Erin Ailworth
  • Alisa Barba
  • Cynthia Barnett
  • Jim Bettinger
  • Seth Borenstein
  • Murray Carpenter
  • Denis Cuff
  • John Dillon
  • Dan Fagin
  • Samuel Fretwell III
  • Bruce Gellerman
  • Heather Goldstone
  • Erin Hayes
  • Tom Henry
  • Zahra Hirji
  • Derrick Jackson
  • Kendra Pierre-Louis
  • Pam Platt
  • Zoe Schlanger
  • Lisa Song
  • JoAnn Valenti

2017 Awards Committee

Chair: Beth Daley, Inside Climate News
Co-chair: James Bruggers, Louisville Courier-Journal
Emilia Askari, Independent Journalist
Gloria Dickie, Independent Multimedia Journalist
Susan Sharon, Maine Public Broadcasting Network

Director of SEJ Awards

Chris Bruggers, Awards Director, Society of Environmental Journalists  (202) 558-2022