SEJ Member Spotlight: James Bruggers

James Bruggers traces his interest in the environment to the northern woods of Michigan. That's where his parents farmed Christmas trees and where he helped his family make maple syrup. He became interested in journalism while working as the sports editor for the Arthur Hill News, his Saginaw, Michigan, high school newspaper, and watching Watergate unfold and Richard Nixon resign the presidency. After high school, he wanted to work as a forester or as a professional journalist. So he kept both options open at the University of Montana, graduating with a forestry and journalism double major, and then later returning to earn a master's degree in environmental studies. But printer's ink was in his veins, and he has worked more than 30 years as a reporter in Montana, Alaska, Washington, California and Kentucky.

In December 1999, he came to The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Kentucky's largest news organization. He covers coal, energy, air quality, water quality, and local and state government environmental agencies, as well as some general assignment. He has written a daily blog, Watchdog Earth, since 2006.

Bruggers broke the story about how hundreds of railroad workers in the United States had been diagnosed with permanent brain damage, following their occupational exposure to industrial solvents. That special report was a finalist in the Associated Press Managing Editors contest, public service category, in 2001. In 2004, he won the Thomas Stokes Award, the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation’s Excellence in Journalism Award, and two Best of Gannett awards for the series, “Toxic Air: Lingering Health Menace.” Those stories led to the passage of a Louisville toxic air reduction program that has since been credited with reducing toxic chemical exposure, including a more than 80 percent reduction in the levels of the human carcinogen butadiene. In 2011, his coverage of spending and ethics at Louisville's sewer, storm-water and flood control district led to a state audit, the eventual complete overhaul of the agency's leadership and a plan to merge the agency with Louisville's city-owned water company. His recent reporting on Louisville's rapidly growing urban heat island and relative lack of tree cover has helped foster a discussion about how to plant more trees and cool the city he covers. In the last several months, he's been working on a series of stories dealing with adaptation to climate change — and what needs to be done to help cities, farms and nature be more resilient in the face of challenges from global warming.

Bruggers spent a year on the University of Michigan campus as a mid-career Knight Wallace fellow in 1998-99, where he studied literature and cars of the future, which have now become the cars of today. He attended his first Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in 2004 and he has been to every one since. He helped organize regional meetings when he worked at The Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area and was elected five times to the SEJ board, serving 13 years, including two years as vice president and two years as president. When he was president, the board established its Freedom of Information Task Force "to address freedom-of-information, right-to-know, and other news gathering issues of concern to the pursuit of environmental journalism," in the secrecy aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Under his presidential leadership, the SEJ board created SEJ's 21st Century Fund endowment program and its annual journalism awards program. James has not missed an SEJ annual conference since 1994. In 2010, he was the co-chair of SEJ's 20th annual conference hosted at his alma mater in Missoula, Montana.

He lives in Louisville with his wife, SEJ consultant Christine Bruggers, and their cat, Stella. They like to garden, walk in the woods, ride their bikes, fish for trout, and visit their families.

Follow Bruggers on Twitter @jbruggers.
Read Watchdog Earth at
Read some of his work at
Follow his latest series on climate adaptation at
Reach him via email at

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