Environmental Sleuthing Toolbox

March 16, 2016

This special issue of SEJ's WatchDog celebrates "Sunshine Week," the national reminder that freedom of information and open government are essential for a working democracy. News media and citizen groups across the U.S. field special projects for Sunshine Week. Ours is the Environmental Sleuthing Toolbox.


Go ahead: be worried about what’s in your environment — and that of your audience. While governments and companies have made progress in recent decades, there are still pollutants and hazards that can harm people. There is lots of information available for environmental reporters. Information wants to be free — but it isn’t always. Companies and governments don’t always make available information on environmental threats. But if reporters and citizens don’t use the information that IS available, they may lose it.

This toolbox is ... well ... full of flashlights. That's one way to think of environmental databases. They can help you see things. But they will not necessarily solve the problem. A lot more is needed to do environmental journalism. Most importantly, you probably need to "ground-truth" the data. You will also need to talk to people who know what is going on and wear out shoe leather finding the real human impacts.

Here’s some of what you can get:




Air Pollution Permits

Discharges of many key pollutants into the air people breathe are restricted via a permit system under the Clean Air Act. These permits, too, are mostly administered by the states, but data about them is searchable online from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The air permit rules are even more complex than the water rules, but one place to start searching is here.


Drinking Water Contaminants

Credit: Food & Water Watch

Although the Flint water crisis shows how it can fail, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) set out a framework meant to keep drinking water from public pipes safe. Federal, state, and local agencies are all involved. SDWA tries (if it too often fails) to keep people informed about contamination of their drinking water. Information about local drinking water systems and their violations is in EPA's online, searchable SDWIS database. Get the “Consumer Confidence Report” from your local utility. A set of databases overviewing drinking water contaminants nationally is here.


Environmental Violations

Think of bureaucracy as your friend. EPA keeps a pretty comprehensive database of environmental violations and enforcement actions, known as ECHO. It is a great way to probe into the records of individual companies (or groups of companies) across air/land/water programs. It is online and searchable here.


Superfund Sites

Credit: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

The U.S. landscape is still dotted with sites where major industrial operations have left toxic and hazardous wastes and walked away. Since enactment in 1980, EPA's Superfund program has collected cleanup costs from polluters and funded government cleanups. Much work is still under way. You can search the list of Superfund sites here.





Toxic Discharges

Want to know where toxic substances are being released into the environment? The grandmother of all environmental databases is the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which catalogues major facilities handling, transferring, disposing of, or releasing some of the most common industrial toxic substances. It is searchable and online here.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Water Pollution Permits

Under the Clean Water Act, most significant pipe discharges of wastewater into lakes, streams, and estuaries must have a permit. These are typically administered by the states, but the EPA gives basic permit information via an online, searchable database. It’s complicated, but the place to start searching is here.






Coal Ash

The coal ash that results from decades of electric power generation is a widespread and unresolved problem. While the safety issues stemming from catastrophic ash pond failure get the big press, the lower-key, chronic problem of water pollution from leaching heavy metals may be more important. First step is realizing that there may be one near you. Find it with online data from Ashtracker (by Environmental Integrity Project). It does not contain all of them. See also EPA’s database. The Center for Media and Democracy’s database, while it focuses only on high-hazard sites, is useful for its aerial photographs.


Electric Power Plants

Electric power plants generate a whole universe of environmental stories — whether air pollution, climate, regional fuel politics, ratepayer rage, investor economics, or clean energy. The power plants themselves are pieces in a vast chessboard. Fortunately for journalists, basic data on electric power plants is available. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) keeps a database on power plants, known as the Form EIA-923 detailed data. It is downloadable.


Fracking Operations

Perhaps you are concerned about the oil-gas well production technology known as “fracking.” The drilling industry has worked hard to keep you from knowing what toxic chemicals they are injecting underground and what effects fracking may have on groundwater, wells, and health. Activists (with a little help from government and industry) work to track the effects. A few good starting points for discovering useful fracking data are FracFocus, Skytruth, and FracTracker.


Nuclear Plants

Today there are roughly 100 nuclear electric power plant units in the United States. That number is down from a decade ago, as old plants are taken offline and new ones aren’t yet realized. Nuclear’s share of total U.S. generation is down, too. Safety, cost, and waste disposal issues remain. The standard list is from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — online here. A database of power reactors worldwide is available from the World Nuclear Association.


Oil Trains

Credit: Harvey Henkelmann, Wikimedia Commons

Ever since a crude oil train incinerated the Quebec town Lac-Mégantic in 2013, people have worried about oil trains derailing and exploding as they roll through populated areas. The rail industry tries hard to keep people from being aware of the dangers the rail industry presents, but thanks to the Federal Railway Administration, some information leaks out. Availability is state-by-state (is your state owned by railroads?). Starting points for data: the Energy Information Administration, ProPublica, Blast Zone, and PriceOfOil, but such information is sketchy. More productive may be data from states that release it, like North Dakota, California, Pennsylvania, or Washington.



Pipelines have been known to blow up and kill people, or to spill oil or chemicals that harm the environment. The industry tries hard to restrict the information the public can get about the dangers they bring into communities with pipelines — scaring people with “terrorists.” The pipelines keep blowing up without terrorist help. One good starting point for discovering the oil, gas, and hazmat pipelines in your area is the National Pipeline Mapping System.


Power Lines

Power lines are often an environmental story — for a number of reasons, including the political. They are hard to hide. A fair amount of location data is available from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which requires it of utility and transmission companies. You can get pretty detailed raw data files, or what is perhaps more useful and accessible, integrated, layered, interactive maps of the data. Or, if you have the money, try a commercial database like MAPSearch.




Credit: Eric Vance/EPA

Abandoned Mines

The 2015 blowout of the abandoned Gold King Mine was bad — but it was news because some people saw it as a chance to flog EPA. In fact, the U.S. is dotted with many abandoned mines that are polluting streams — and Congress has yet to pass any law making anyone responsible for cleaning them up. Federal data are hard to get, but SkyTruth has published a data set on abandoned coal mines online as an interactive map.



Extremely Hazardous Industrial Facilities

Remember the West, Texas, fertilizer explosion that killed 15 (mostly first responders) in 2013? No: neither the government nor industry has made us safe yet. Tens of thousands of industrial facilities (not just chemical plants and fertilizer depots, but large ammonia refrigeration plants and chlorine wastewater disinfection units) are so dangerous that federal law requires them to report. The feds make this information hard for the public to get at — but a nonprofit called RTK Net has put it online in a searchable database.


Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Many fingers of shame are pointed these days at the carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions of particular industries or companies. In the old days, this was done without hard data. Today, legally mandated government efforts to catalogue greenhouse gas emissions are getting more specific and precise. You can find stories by starting a search of EPA’s inventory database here, or look at the full report in hard copy.


Hazardous Waste Disposal

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) also regulates disposal of hazardous wastes, which are often much more dangerous than ordinary garbage. Compared to solid waste landfills, there are fewer facilities that can legally take hazardous wastes. You can find out a lot about these facilities via EPA’s RCRAInfo database.


Solid Waste Disposal

Ordinary garbage landfills (and related facilities) are widespread in the U.S. While most are fairly well regulated today, they are an issue for municipalities and the citizens who throw stuff out. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), EPA calls regular garbage “solid waste.” Issues for environmental reporters: siting, groundwater, methane, recycling, smell, and nuisance among them. To get the lowdown on individual RCRA facilities, search EPA’s RCRAInfo database.


Underground Injection Wells

It is a common and legal practice to dispose of all sorts of dangerous and unpleasant liquids by pumping them deep underground through wells into underground geologic formations. These activities are slightly regulated on the Underground Injection Control (UIC) provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The way it works, the oil and gas industry gets special breaks — including an exemption from having to disclose fracking chemicals they pump underground. States do what little regulating actually gets done. But EPA helpfully maintains a database of some categories of wells with its Underground Injection Well Inventory database. It’s a little dated and not searchable, but is downloadable.





Dams, levees, and other manmade water control structures are widespread. They have benefits. They can also kill people and destroy property when they fail — but more commonly just harm natural ecosystems. Currently, the U.S. Corps of Engineers is misguidedly restricting public access to data about dam safety problems. That has not stopped IRE from scraping and publishing available data. For a pretty comprensive overview of dam-related data, check SEJ’s own toolbox page.



Earthquakes can be big news, when they happen. Some reporters keep the police scanner on, while others get automated seismic activity feeds from the U.S. Geological Survey. USGS offers alerts in several media — email, text, rss feed, and even Twitter. Offerings are here. For a longer view (the quakes that haven’t happened yet), USGS offers national, regional, and urban hazard maps. Is your area likely to face “the big one”? Will it be ready?



Photo by Ryan Johnson, Creative Commons

Floods also offer disaster stories for news media when they happen. But the harder, deeper stories may be about what is causing the floods, what is causing the damage, and how to prevent worse disasters. Climate is making sea-level rise and storm surge part of the story, too. Floods are even a growth and zoning story. One way for journalists to prepare is to look over the flood maps. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s flood risk maps, and a suite of related flood risk “products” are a good starting point. They are produced via FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. Also helpful for realtime stream conditions during flood events is the U.S. Geological Survey's online, searchable streamflow database.



Landslides are a significant environmental hazard — sometimes manmade. Geologists actually have a fairly good idea of where landslides are likely to happen. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) keeps track of landslide risks in a dozen states via its Landslide Inventory Pilot Project. USGS also catalogues actual landslide events.



If you remember the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people, you know these "tidal waves" can be environmental disasters. Settlement patterns, the built environment, and warning systems can affect human survival. Parts of the U.S. Pacific Coast may be vulnerable. There is an international Tsunami Warning System. The U.S. component of that is run by the National Weather Service. Following an earthquake, you can get predictions of tsunamis from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.





Not many journalists pay attention, but cosmetics are an important environmental pathway by which people are exposed to potentially toxic chemicals. Cosmetics are regulated, but not very tightly, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. One help in covering this issue is the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep® database, which contains entries for some 60,000 products.


Environmental Disease

Wikimedia Commons

Pollution undeniably makes people sick. But connecting environmental factors to disease and death is a tricky business. If you are reporting, get expert help. Still, you may find some helpful jumping off points in a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) database acronymed WONDER. It is a single portal for using a variety of databases related to public health that are maintained by CDC. CDC has a mandate to collect and compile statistics on many subjects, and a surprising number of these are relevant to the environment beat. Examples include asthma and allergy prevalence, lung disease, cancer, agricultural safety, pesticides, occupational exposure, chemical hazards, waterborne disease, foodborne disease, and adverse vaccine events.


Credit: cat-sidh/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Food Additives

The battleground that is food policy is littered with environmental stories. One of them involves food additives. We are not going to say anything about this, because people are paid to object to journalistic investigation of this subject. Journalists who want to report a story that affects people’s lives, however, may want to know about the FDA’s Everything Added to Food in the United States (EAFUS) database. Of course, the Grocery Manufacturers Association have their own database (it costs). You may also find the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores database handy.


Foodborne Disease

Foodborne disease can often involve environmental pathways — let’s limit ourselves for now to microbial disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tries to keep track of foodborne disease, although much of it goes unnoticed, undiagnosed, or unreported. Much of the data coming in from state and local health agencies goes into the Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD Tool). It is downloadable.


Waterborne Disease

Waterborne disease is actually a significant environmental problem, although journalists don’t often cover it. Diseases can be transmitted not only by drinking water, but also by recreational contact. There actually is a database for this, but it is not searchable online: the Waterborne Disease and Outbreak Surveillance System, maintained by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). You can get surveillance reports. Some of the information is available online from the National Outbreak Reporting System.

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