Inside Story: Raising Questions about Unequal Justice in Contamination Case
Sharon Lerner covers health and environment for The Intercept and is a reporting fellow at The Investigative Fund. Her story, The Strange Case of Tennie White, took top honors in the outstanding feature story category in SEJ’s 16th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. (Lerner also won an honorable mention in the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting for her Teflon Toxin series).
The judges called Lerner’s article on White, an environmental scientist and advocate jailed by federal prosecutors for a petty sampling infraction, a “well-researched, finely written and disturbing investigation of contamination and injustice near a chemical plant in Mississippi.” Lerner, who lives in Brooklyn, recently talked with SEJournal features editor Jennifer Dorroh. An edited version of the conversation is below.
SEJournal: How did you learn about Tennie White’s case, and how did you decide to tell her story?
Sharon Lerner: I had previously reported on a pediatric cancer cluster in Florida for The Nation. A community sat across a swamp from a defense contractor, which had contaminated the land with radioactive waste. A bunch of kids in the community had brain cancer. That story got me drenched in the issues, such as how hard it is to prove causality when it comes to contamination.
|Lab owner and environmental activist Tennie White was sentenced to more than three years in a federal prison. Found guilty of fraud for faking lab tests she insists she performed, she was the only person connected to a pair of major environmental contamination cases in Mississippi to serve prison time. Photo: Screenshot courtesy The Intercept.
A few months later, I saw a little item in the paper after the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] made the biggest Superfund cleanup deal in history. The story mentioned that one small town in Mississippi had objected to the settlement, saying that it wasn’t enough.
I started researching that community and found out that it was Columbus, Mississippi. I was heading to the state soon for a story on school desegregation. You get your curiosity piqued, so you go an hour and a half out of your way.
In Columbus, I interviewed Rev. Steve Jamison, the pastor there who found creosote [a wood preservative and known carcinogen that had been used by a nearby manufacturing plant] on his church’s land.
Rev. Jamison was the one who told me about Tennie. He happened to mention, “They’ve got one of ours. They took one of our people and put her in jail.” His language struck me. It was the language of war.
It made absolutely no sense to me [that the owner of a small lab would be in prison for a small infraction], so I wanted to confirm it. It took me a long time to tell which parts of the story were true.
There was a long period of time when I would get calls from Tennie in prison on a Saturday. I would try to jump out of whatever I was doing and take notes during our call.
SEJournal: You explain in the story that your Freedom of Information Act request to the EPA for all communications relating to the Tennie White investigation was only partially fulfilled, and that many of your interview requests were rejected. How did you fill in the gaps?
Lerner: Nobody wanted to talk to me. Her attorneys didn’t. The opposing attorneys didn’t. The EPA didn’t want to talk to me.
It took forever to unravel because the case is so complicated. In the end, I wasn’t able to find out everything. There were questions that remained at the end, but I had to raise them and show what the consequences were for these people’s trust of our government.
There aren’t many other publications that would have let me do that story. As I kept reporting, I had to say to my editor, “I’m realizing that she may have done some of the things that she was accused of. I don’t know if she lied about going to college but I think she might have.” A lot of publications would have said, “Forget it.” But [the lie] doesn’t mean that what happened to her wasn’t messed up and newsworthy.
|Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner, who won an SEJ award for her feature on contamination and injustice near a chemical plant in Mississippi.
You look at Columbus and how many people are hurting there. And this is only one of thousands of sites this company [formerly known as Kerr-McGee] has contaminated. None of its executives has faced criminal charges. Also, they made off with millions in their scheme.
The other thing that I think is important with that story is that a lot of reporting tends to position the EPA as the hero, but for these people in Columbus, Mississippi, it was not. This community felt mistreated by the EPA.
SEJournal: What lessons did you learn while reporting this story that you or others can apply to future coverage?
Lerner: If you look at any Superfund site, you’ll find a more complicated backstory. These sites only get on the list with a lot of advocacy from people who are affected. I’m pretty sure there are tales of woe behind every one.
If you just looked at the headline [about the Superfund designation and subsequent cleanup], it was a great deal. But for this community, was it a victory or not? If it was a victory, it was a very painful one.
The whole issue of contamination is being covered more than it used to be, but it could be covered more still. There are so many stories competing for coverage in the current political climate, but we’re seeing environmental journalism rise to the occasion. There’s a heroic effort underway, as people are swinging away at these stories.
Jennifer Dorroh is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.