Winners: SEJ 17th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

The Society of Environmental Journalists each year honors journalists for the best articles, radio broadcasts and videos in seven categories, this time naming winners for work released during the year beginning March 1, 2017, and February 28, 2018. SEJ also names winners of the best books on environmental topics published in 2017.

There were more than 400 entries for this year’s awards, which were judged by panels of working journalists. The SEJ contest is the world’s largest and most comprehensive, handing out coveted prizes each autumn.

SEJ will honor the winners on Oct. 6, 2018 at a celebratory luncheon during the society’s 28th annual conference in Flint, Mich.

 

SEJ's 2018 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 Explanatory Reporting
Outstanding Feature Story
Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

SEJ’s 2018 Distinguished Judges

 

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

 

First Place

"Bombs in Our Backyard" by Abrahm Lustgarten, Lena Groeger, Ryann Grochowski Jones, Sisi Wei, Ashley Gilbertson, Ranjani Chakraborty and Lucas Waldron for ProPublica

Story links:

  1. "Open Burns, Ill Winds"
  2. "Kaboom Town" and "In Colfax, Echoes of Another Conflict"
  3. "The Bomb That Went Off Twice"
  4. "Bombs in Your Backyard" (map) and "Reporting Recipe: Bombs in Your Backyard"
  5. "War at Home"

Judges' comments: Pro Publica’s series “Bombs In Our Backyards” did exactly what it set out to do, to expose the menace lurking in the nation’s neighbourhoods — the US military, which ironically, is charged with defending the nation. In a sweeping series, journalist Abrahm Lustgarten revealed the military as the biggest polluter not only in the United States, but surely on the planet. What made Lustgarten’s series so shocking was the fact that their actions were not entirely covered up — it just took the kind of diligence and shoe-leather reporting of a committed journalist to pull together the disparate pieces of a story scattered across the country. This series — which revealed 40,000 toxic sites across the US, open burning of old munitions and explosives going off in rural communities — should change the shameful practice of a federal government allowing the military to harm the very citizens it is supposed to protect. Aside from Lustgarten’s dive into military history, his hours of interviews and picking through public and private records in classic reported fashion, a team of tech savvy reporters (Lena Groeger, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Sisi Wei) provided the public with a major service — an app everyone can download to find out if there are bombs in their backyard.

 

Second Place

"Cheating the Atmosphere" by Matt McGrath and Fiona Hill for BBC World Service Radio

Judges' comments: BBC’s “Cheating the Atmosphere” looks at the next climate change challenge: monitoring compliance with international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It reveals that only a fraction of countries have filed supposedly mandatory reports on how they are reducing climate impacts, and reports that do exist may be filled with data that is fabricated or disputed by scientific observations. Carbon credits have been touted as a way to let the market handle the problem, but ironically, may cause developing countries to adopt polluting practices in order to be paid to reduce them. And finally, as China surpasses the U.S. as the leading producer of greenhouse gases, its internal politics make it difficult to monitor and predict its impact. By finding scientists who speak frankly, Matt McGrath clearly and compellingly explains the hurdles we face in holding nations to their promises. His story unfolds as a series of revelations that keep the listener’s attention to the last minute.

 

Third Place

"Burned Investigation" by Raquel Rutledge, Rick Barrett and John Diedrich for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Story links:

  1. Feb. 15, 2017: "Chemicals left in barrels leave workers and neighborhoods at risk," "Environmental problems plague the barrel reconditioning business" and "Leftover chemicals heighten the risk of barrel fires at refurbishing facilities"
  2. "Conditions were scary dangerous in Wisconsin barrel plants, say workers hurt on the job"
  3. Dec. 13, 2017: "Empty industrial barrels bought on Craigslist present deadly dangers," "'Once you get an ignition source, boom, there’s the explosion'," and "Repurposed steel drums hazardous at home, in the workplace,"
  4. "Noxious neighbor: Chemical barrel recycling factory spews foul odors and may be making people ill"
  5. "Industrial barrel recycling plants in several states rack up environmental and workplace violations"

Judges' comments: In its series titled "Burned", reporters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered an horrific record of public endangerment and official negligence within an industry that provides a product used by millions of people at work and at home every day — the 55-gallon drum. Focusing on a multi-billion dollar industry that recycles and reconditions these barrels, the Journal Sentinel's investigation is a story of deadly explosions, fires, chemical spills and toxic emissions as a result of scandalous practices that have gone largely unpoliced and uncorrected for decades. Still laced with poisonous, often flammable residues from past uses, the haphazardly recycled barrels have been responsible for 69 deaths and scores of injuries across the country during the past 10 years, according to the newspaper. While most of the people hurt have been barrel plant workers, paid an average of $12 an hour, the newspaper chronicled several fatal accidents — including the case of a man whose aorta was torn loose from his heart — as a result of exploding barrels bought for $20 or less on classified ad websites such as Craigslist. The newspaper found that 70% of the barrel plants in the six states where the industry is concentrated had been cited for violations, though few resulted in fines. In an industry that has been in existence for 100 years, the Journal Sentinel reported, some of the worst offenders were unknown to government regulators.

 

Honorable Mention

"EPA Coverage" by Eric Lipton, Lisa Friedman and Danielle Ivory for The New York Times

Story links:

  1. "Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots"
  2. "How $225,000 Can Help Secure a Pollution Loophole at Trump's E.P.A."
  3. "Under Trump, E.P.A. Has Slowed Actions Against Polluters, and Put Limits on Enforcement Officers,"
  4. "E.P.A. Employees Spoke Out. Then Came Scrutiny of Their Email."
  5. "E.P.A. Chief's Calendar: A Stream of Industry Meetings and Trips Home"

Judges' comments: Eric Lipton of the New York Times offers a penetrating preview of a government agency tasked with minimizing environmental pollution under a Trump Administration committed to minimizing government regulation. Lipton described how an appointment to a key position within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has led to less stringent regulation of industrial chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and immune system disorders. Lipton documented a significant reduction in cases brought by the EPA against industrial polluters and showed how a friendly ruling by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt allowed a trucking company, headed by a Trump supporter, to emit up to 55 times as much air pollution as his competitors. And in an early sign that the new administration would govern the way it campaigned, Lipton revealed that the EPA had hired a firm that specializes in opposition research on behalf of conservative candidates to monitor the emails of EPA employees who had been critical of policies under Trump or who had corresponded with Democratic members of Congress.

 

Honorable Mention

"Homes Keep Rising Near Freeway Pollution" by Tony Barboza, Jon Schleuss and David Zahniser for Los Angeles Times

Story links:

  1. "L.A. keeps building near freeways, even though living there makes people sick," "How close do you live to the freeway?" "Living in the freeway pollution zone" and "Live near a freeway? Tell us your story"
  2. "L.A. requires air filters to protect residents near freeways. Are they doing the job?"
  3. "L.A. warns homebuilders, but not residents, of traffic pollution health risks,"
  4. "California officials say housing next to freeways is a health risk — but they fund it anyway"
  5. "Regulators warned against housing near freeways due to health risks. Now they're warming to it"

Judges' comments: Housing may be one of California’s most pressing issues, but the Los Angeles Times series “Homes Keep Rising Near Freeway Pollution” shows developers and city planners may be ignoring the dangers posed to residents. This report by Tony Barboza, Jon Schleuss and David Zahniser used human examples and interactive graphics to dramatically reveal the extent of the problem. Their report got immediate attention from government, as well as the promise of a longer-term study.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Amazon Is the New Frontier for Deadly Wildlife Tourism" by Natasha Daly and Kirsten Luce for National Geographic

Judges' comments: As tourism becomes the panacea of seemingly every photogenic country in the world, we forget that our actions have an outsized affect on some of the more vulnerable beings in our midst — animals. Sometimes it takes one great long narrative nudge to alert humans to the fact that they’re acting badly toward our wild animal neighbours. Natasha Daly and photographer Kirsten Luce helped tourists understand better their role in creating dangerous conditions for these vulnerable creatures with the story, “The Amazon Is the New Frontier for Deadly Wildlife Tourism.” Daly and Luce revealed how our fascination with wild animals combined with our devotion to documenting and sharing that fascination with selfies on social media is destroying what we supposedly love. That a tourist’s once-in-a-lifetime experience is in fact an animal’s almost hourly experience is the kind of story that will reach its intended target through a publication like National Geographic. It’s a story that has filtered out from destinations around the world but by taking that narrative to the Amazon, a place often viewed as the ultimate wilderness experience, the story had an outsize influence across the media ecosystem. The story moved the conservation further out into the public sphere and our hope is that the conversation continues.

 

 

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

 

First Place

"Toxic Secrets: Pollution, Evasion and Fear in North Jersey" by James M. O’Neill, Scott Fallon, Chris Pedota, Daniel Sforza, Michael Pettigano and Susan Lupow for The Record (Bergen County, NJ) and NorthJersey.com

Story links:

  1. "Pollution, evasion and fear in North Jersey"
  2. "How poisonous chemicals from a DuPont factory wound up beneath 400 homes"
  3. "N.J. community faces high rates of cancer, rare illnesses"
  4. "What's next for DuPont pollution and residents who live above it"

Judges' comments: A challenging, lengthy investigation by The Record and northjersey.com produced a four-part series of stories earlier this year revealing that the DuPont chemical company knew that cancer-causing solvents dating back to World War II could vaporize into the homes of a New Jersey community. The stories were more than just great newsgathering; they also displayed innovative storytelling, highlighted by engaging illustration and beautifully produced multimedia, a tradition within the Record organization. These solvents were discovered 30 years ago and continued to be a hazard despite years of public attention, retaining the capability of seeping into homes and backyards. The six-month reporting effort by the Record's environmental team of James M. O'Neill and Scott Fallon along with photojournalist Chris Pedota was launched last year to get at a central question. How could a site of this magnitude across 140 acres remain hazardous 30 years after DuPont agreed to clean it up? It took until 2018 to get action on the DuPont site because DuPont feared that an aggressive cleanup would aid litigants in a lawsuit brought by 500 residents of the town of Pompton Lakes, NJ. The package, published in February, got immediate attention from Gov. Phil Murphy, who just took office in 2018 and who ordered his administration's Attorney General and environmental commissioner to investigate whether adequate cleanup procedures have been implemented. In addition, the site is also now being considered as a federal Superfund site and the controversy has become a significant issue in the local congressional campaign. Moreover, while the investigation focused on this one New Jersey case study, it also highlighted what is a growing national problem with these kinds of vapor hazards, a concern the reporting suggested is not only about newly contaminated sites but also about those already thought to have been cleaned up. In New York regulators have revisited 147 sites to check for vapors even though those sites had already been considered cleaned up. Congratulations to the team and their organization for demonstrating patience and commitment to getting to the DuPont story.

 

 

Second Place

"Power Struggle" by Brett Chase and Madison Hopkins for Better Government Association (www.bettergov.org), republished by several Illinois newspapers, condensed versions ran nationwide on AP wire

Judges' comments: This investigation chronicles serious trouble at aging Illinois nuclear power plants: radioactive leaks and dangerous vulnerabilities, insufficient oversight and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission dismissive of nuclear plant whistleblowers' concerns and complaints. Reporters Brett Chase and Madison Hopkins spent nearly a year combing through tens of thousands of federal and state documents to compile this series of well-researched and thoroughly documented reports on the nuclear power industry in Illinois. Among their findings: Illinois EPA often relied on nuclear plant owners to investigate their radioactive leaks and to "self-report"; tritium-contaminated water continued to pour from nuclear plants in Illinois even after federal officials sent notices of violations; two of Illinois' nuclear plants remain at serious — and potentially catastrophic — risk from flooding. The BGA team's search through federal records also revealed that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, over a six-year period, received over 600 whistleblower complaints from nuclear plant employees in Illinois and around the nation. The NRC upheld none of them. Insightful and cautionary, BGA'S "Power Struggle" was distributed by the Associated Press and brought significant attention to a vulnerable industry that, without sufficient oversight and enforcement, can pose real risk to residents of Illinois.

 

Third Place

"Oroville Dam Aftermath" by Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler for The Sacramento Bee

Story links:

  1. "Spillway’s unreliability was known for decades"
  2. "Is too much water stored behind Oroville Dam?"
  3. "State blocks review of Oroville Dam crisis"
  4. "Oroville Dam had problems right from the start in 1960s"
  5. "Stressed dams across state often go years without repairs"

Judges' comments: The Sacramento Bee's ongoing coverage of the Oroville Dam crisis began in February 2017 when the dam's main spillway fractured. Over two days, nearly 200,000 local residents were evacuated and the risks of catastrophic failure loomed over the region. From the first day of the crisis, Bee reporters Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler moved aggressively into ongoing coverage of the crisis, breaking multiple investigative stories within days of the dam spillway disaster. Among other things over their first days of coverage, within 48 hours of the emergency, they revealed that California engineers had known for decades about the risks of that spillway and ultimately about the vulnerability of 93 California dams. Like all water stories in California, reporting on this story is complicated by a long history of complex regulatory structures and by the state's ongoing political battles about water. But Oroville is not just any dam. It is the tallest in the state and helps create the second largest man-made lake in California. It is central to California's water needs. So the team's coverage not only touched the lives of those in the region but also shed light on the challenges around water matters throughout California. Their reporting also led to widely reported conflicts with the state government's hierarchy about documents the state sought to withhold from the Bee and from public scrutiny. Ultimately many critical documents were released as a result of the reporting team's pursuit of the story and the paper's commitment to supporting them. The Sabalow-Kasler stories weren't just deep in reporting. They were also beautifully presented with vivid color photography highlighting dam locations and structural challenges and graphics that provided data rich opportunities for readers to assess dams throughout the state. Eleven months later, independent investigators concluded that oversight of the dam demonstrated "long-term systemic failure," reminding Bee readers of the value of making ongoing coverage of a vital regional story an important priority. Congratulations to the team for a year of tireless reporting.

 

Honorable Mention

"Hogwashed: A Powerful Special Interest. Shameless Politicians. Failed Regulations. An In-Depth Look at Big Pork in North Carolina." by Erica Hellerstein and Ken Fine for INDY Week, Triad City Beat and The Guardian

Story links:

  1. "Hundreds of Poor, Mostly African-American Residents of Eastern North Carolina Say Big Pork Is Making Their Lives Miserable"
  2. "Environmental Advocates Say Hog Facilities’ Antiquated Waste-Disposal Systems Are Threatening the State’s Waterways"
  3. "Solutions Exist for the Hog Industry’s Waste-Management Problem. Why Aren’t They Being Used?"

Judges' comments: This riveting three-part series documents the continuing problems in the North Carolina hog production industry. Five hundred North Carolinians have filed suit against a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods — the largest hog producer in the world, now owned by a multinational Chinese corporation — alleging adverse effects on the health and quality of life of those living near hog farms. "Hogwashed" documents those effects, including quotes from studies that found walls of homes neighboring the hog farms to be contaminated with pig-manure DNA. Reporters Fine and Hellerstein also follow the politics — and the money — that stymie more stringent environmental regulation of hog farms in the state. The last part of the series offers a positive note: a profile of one hog farmer using an innovative and effective technique to minimize pollution from his hog farm, while converting the manure's methane to energy. While few have followed that farmer's lead, the "Hogwashed" series' attention to it offers hope for change in an industry that has taken a toll on North Carolina's environment.

 

Honorable Mention

"A Century of Domination: As America's Carbon Wars Rage, Oil and Gas Industry Influence Grows" by Jie Jenny Zou, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Kristen Lombardi, Jim Morris, Chris Young and Sasha Khokha (with partner KQED) for The Center for Public Integrity

Story links:

  1. "The United States of Petroleum"
  2. "Oil’s pipeline to America’s schools"
  3. "'The fear of dying' pervades Southern California's oil-polluted enclaves"
  4. "A California regulator’s curious crusade to remake the Clean Air Act"
  5. "Natural gas building boom fuels climate worries, enrages landowners"

Judges' comments: The Center for Public Integrity provided a valuable public service by helping readers see how the petroleum industry has pulled the levers of power in America for nearly a century — and how its influence is growing under the Trump Administration. CPI's measured reporting showed how the industry's attacks on science undermine environmental law and stall court cases in which citizens claim harm; it chronicled how scientists who've been on the fringe of the climate change debate are now major players in the federal government; and it explained how industry leaders are schooling judicial candidates to be skeptics when presented with scientific evidence — before being confirmed for state and federal positions. This work was ambitious in scope, but is accessible to readers. The exhaustive historical context illustrated how the American Petroleum Institute has had tentacles in all branches of the federal government since World War II, when a consistent flow of oil was determined to be a national security interest. No matter the president or party, API has long enjoyed access to the White House. And it spends freely to debunk evidence of air pollution and global warming, often to the detriment of the American people. This is important work that will lead to a better understanding of the way Washington works. Outside the capital, the CPI team captured the suffering of asthma patients and others struggling with particulate pollution. And the stories of ordinary citizens being run over by the gas and oil industry stand as a cautionary tale. Well done.

 

Honorable Mention

"FOX10 News Investigates: Toxic Release" by Kati Weis for WALA FOX10 News

Judges' comments: Residents of the impoverished community of Mcintosh were frightened in February when a cloud of toxic chlorine gas was released from the chemical plant across the street. No alarm sounded, but there was a harsh smell in the air and a huge police presence. But no one from the Olin Corporation, a global manufacturer of chemical products, came to Mcintosh to check on residents, and the company issued no statement about the size of the release or why it occurred. That's when Fox 10's Kati Weis began investigating. She learned that 738 pounds of chlorine, an amount nearly equal to a railroad tanker car, was released because plant workers didn't follow protocol, and that police were dispatched directly into a cloud of gas while blocking a road near the plant. Her special reports also showed that Olin had released chlorine into the air eight other times since 2010, the February incident being the largest. The company would not speak on camera, but it released a statement saying it was "sorry for the concerns" related to the big release. State regulators used black and white photos of evergreen trees turned brown to show there was little or no environmental damage, although Fox 10 chronicled a resident and a police officer struggling to breath after being exposed to the gas release. The public was served well by this watchdog work, and it had impact in the community. Olin purchased respirators and paid for training so that the community's first responders would be protected in the event of another release.

 

 

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market

 

First Place

"Complexities of the Wildlife Trade" by Rachel Nuwer for New York Times, National Geographic, BBC Future

Story links:

  1. "Asia's Illegal Wildlife Trade Makes Tigers a Farm-to-Table Meal"
  2. "High Above, Drones Keep Watchful Eyes on Wildlife in Africa"
  3. "North Korean Diplomats Accused of Smuggling Ivory and Rhino Horn"
  4. "Hunt Elephants to Save Them? Some Countries See No Other Choice"
  5. "The Bold Tech-fuelled Plan To Save Africa's Big Beasts"

Judges' comments: It's not just that freelancer Rachel Nuwer gets her work published in iconic publications such as The New York Times and National Geographic; it's that her balance between fearless reporting and graceful writing leaves a lasting impression. Judges agreed the prose, organization and overall presentation of her stories has an extra something that makes them highly readable, engaging and even a little mesmerizing, whether it's reporting on the unethical slaughter of tigers and other exotic animals, the growing use of drone technology to nab poachers or the seeds of corruption laid by diplomats linked to smuggling. The bar was set high by this year's group of solid entries — and Nuwer blew right past it.

 

Second Place

"Coverage of the U.S. EPA" by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept in partnership with The Investigative Fund

Story links:

  1. "EPA Division That Studies the Health Risks of Toxic Chemicals Is in a Fight for Its Life — Against the EPA"
  2. "Banned From the Banking Industry for Life, a Scott Pruitt Friend Finds a New Home at the EPA"
  3. "EPA Staffers Are Being Forced to Prioritize Energy Industry's Wish List, Says Official Who Resigned in Protest"
  4. "Trump's EPA Chemical Safety Nominee Was in the 'Business of Blessing' Pollution"
  5. "House Republicans Launch a New Assault on the EPA"

Judges' comments: Upheaval at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was one of the biggest stories of the year, and Sharon Lerner covered it masterfully. Her reporting showed nuance and depth and broke news about the suspicious dealings of individuals nominated to oversee chemical safety and Superfund cleanups. She brought to light the political threats to diminish an obscure but valuable agency division that evaluates chemical risks. The well-sourced reporting carries with it a sense of history, and the writing is clear and authoritative.

 

Third Place

"Scott Pruitt's EPA" by Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis for The Washington Post

Story links:

  1. "At EPA museum, history might be in for a change"
  2. "At EPA, guarding the chief pulls agents from pursuing environmental crimes"
  3. "EPA is taking more advice from industry — and ignoring its own scientists"
  4. "EPA spending almost $25,000 to install a secure phone booth for Scott Pruitt"
  5. "First-class travel distinguishes Scott Pruitt's EPA tenure"

Judges' comments: Under President Trump, the EPA has become a beat unto itself, and the work of Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis was some of the most impactful of the year. They consistently broke stories that led other coverage. What they uncovered regarding Administrator Pruitt's spending on his security detail and a soundproof phone booth broke out of the environmental beat to become mainstream news that influenced federal politics.

 

Honorable Mention

"Chicago Beat Reporting Exclusives" by Michael Hawthorne for Chicago Tribune

Story links:

  1. "Bacteria-filled water still flushed into Chicago River"
  2. "Kids get poisoned, landlords get paid"
  3. "Crackdown on air polluter stalls under Trump's EPA"
  4. "Pollution-related penalties take a dive under Rauner"
  5. "Rauner's EPA seeks to ease coal plant rules"

Judges' comments: This is superb watchdog reporting. Hawthorne knows his region, knows the questions to ask and knows the stories to follow up on. He uses documents, public records and data to cover Superfund cleanups, persistent sewage pollution in Chicago waterways and lead contamination in housing paid for with public funds. These are detailed, policy-driven stories, but Hawthorne grounds the reporting in consequences to individual lives: boaters on the rivers, families with sickened children.

 

Honorable Mention

"VICE News Tonight Climate Desk" by Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Ruben Davis, Lee Doyle, Jika Gonzalez, Agnes Walton and Sarah Sax for VICE News Tonight

Story links:

  1. "Slurry Worry: This guy is using his drone to fight a West Virginia coal mining company’s toxic lake"
  2. "Scientists can now quickly link extreme weather events to climate change"
  3. "Plant Pirates: Peru's farmers are in crisis as thousands of international patents claim rights to native plants"
  4. "Why Some TV Meteorologists Are Still Climate Skeptics"
  5. "Fire Vs. Fire: How to literally fight a devastating forest fire with fire"

Judges' comments: Judges appreciated the approach to climate change reporting and, in general, the willingness to take on unconventional stories through strong video productions, such as explainers about the bomb cyclone and controlled fire burns. Thanks especially for the story of 27-year-old West Virginia activist Junior Walk; it's hard not to be mesmerized by the drone video he uses to hold mining companies accountable. Viewers got a good feel for his personality, too. The entry went beyond ordinary policy debates.

 

Honorable Mention

"Pacific Northwest Environment Reporting" by Tony Schick for Oregon Public Broadcasting

Story links:

  1. "Questionable Payments to Oregon Ranchers Who Blame Wolves For Missing Cattle"
  2. "As Northwest States Kill Wolves, Researchers Cast Doubt on Whether It Works"
  3. "Washington Lawmaker Has 6-Figure Salary in Trump Administration, Documents Show"
  4. "Oregon Oil Train Bill Moves to Floor, with Key Regulation Removed Again"
  5. "The Diesel You Breathe"

Judges' comments: Tony Schick's reporting combined strong investigative work with a clear sense of place, compelling personal narratives and creative use of multiple media — impactful work that was enjoyable to read.

 

 

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market

 

First Place

"Environmental Reporting in South Carolina's Lowcountry" by Tony Bartelme for The Post and Courier

Story links:

  1. "Running Amuck: Harmful algae blooms fouling waters across the nation"
  2. "Here’s Your Future: A tropical storm surge sends Charleston an urgent message"
  3. "Power Failure: How utilities across the U.S. changed the rules to make big bets with your money"
  4. "Our Vanishing Coast: Slowly but surely, South Carolina's incredibly complex shoreline is losing ground"

Judges' comments: Tony Bartelme's mastery of his environmental beat is evident, whether he's writing about algae blooms, flooding or questionable power projects. A blockbuster piece on the aforementioned algae blooms engages the reader from start to finish as it explains the growing, toxic menace that is scum. He is also adept at bringing national scope to local issues, as he did while examining how power companies across the U.S. spent billions of dollars in ratepayers' money on nuclear power and clean coal projects ultimately plagued by mismanagement and cost overruns. Tony's skill is evident as he dives deep time and again in order to deliver deftly-crafted, enterprising features on serious topics.

 

Second Place

"Environmental Issues in Rural Texas" by Christopher Collins for The Texas Observer

Story links:

  1. "Death from Above"
  2. "Fanning the Flames"
  3. "Big Spring Vs. Big Oil"
  4. "The Panhandle Drought, Fueled Partly by Climate Change, Foretells Other Environmental Risks"
  5. "Costs for Rural Towns Surge after Hurricane Harvey Hits Water Systems"

Judges' comments: Christopher Collins' reporting takes audiences to little-known parts of rural Texas and sheds a light on the serious environmental issues affecting residents in those areas. Through his engaging and colorful narrative we meet locals exposed to dangerous chemical drift from unscrupulous crop dusters, discover the negative side effects of a federal land conservation program left unchecked and learn about a fracking frenzy that strains the groundwater resources communities rely on. Collins' passion shines through in every article, and his stories were a delight to read — an appealing mix of hard-hitting information and interesting characters that draws in the reader and leaves one wanting to read more.

 

Third Place

"Environmental Stories in Rhode Island" by Alex Kuffner for The Providence Journal

Story links:

  1. "Losing Ground"
  2. "Toxic Algae Haunts R.I."
  3. "Danger Below: R.I.'s gas-pipe network leaks like a sieve. Fixing it is a huge job."
  4. "Where the Birds Are"
  5. "On the Brink"

Judges' comments: In a series of colorfully written, deeply reported stories, Alex Kuffner takes readers on a tour of southern New England's changing landscape. An especially strong package covers sea-level rise though the eyes of a scientist who has been monitoring plots of marsh for a decade. Kuffner casts a wide net in reporting on the environment — from leaky natural gas pipelines to the "plucky little saltmarsh sparrow." Taken together, these stories read like an engaging primer on the environmental challenges facing Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island.

 

Honorable Mention

"Alaska Beat Reporting" by Yereth Rosen for Alaska Dispatch News and Oceans Deeply

Story links:

  1. "As Woody Shrubs Move North in a warming Arctic, So Do Beavers"
  2. "Threat of Moose-killing Tick Infestation Looms As Far-north Climate Warms"
  3. "Retreating Exit Glacier Has Become an Icon of Climate Change"
  4. "Big Melt Season in Chukchi and Beaufort Seas Affects Animals, People and the Weather Ahead"
  5. "How Microplastics Are Contaminating Seabirds in Remote Regions of Alaska"

Judges' comments: It's hard to imagine a bigger subject than climate change in Alaska, but Yereth Rosen whittles it down to size, finding engaging subjects and important trends to show how the state and the surrounding ocean are changing. Rosen's powerful account of the fast-retreating Exit Glacier uses an iconic site to illustrate the effects of global warming, and put them in a human scale. Other stories about beavers, moose and seabirds paint pictures of a region in rapid flux.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Last Wild Place" by Nathan Eagle and Alana Eagle for Honolulu Civil Beat

Judges' comments: The 14-part multimedia package put together by Nathan and Alana Eagle on the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a stunningly beautiful and informative treat for viewers. The package is an island-hopping journey in which Nathan and Alana’s photos and videos are deftly combined with interesting factoids, historical and cultural tidbits, and researchers’ observations to introduce us to a part of the world most of us will never see. Within that journey, we see the majesty of the islands, but also come to recognize the environmental impacts they’ve borne as a result of pollution and human activity.

 

 

Outstanding Explanatory Reporting

 

First Place

"Marshall Islands Project" by Kim Wall, Coleen Jose, Jan Hendrik Hinzel, Brittany Levine, Andrew Freedman and Alex Hazlett for Mashable

Story links:

  1. "The poison and the tomb"
  2. "On Standby: When you leave the Marshall Islands, you buy a one-way ticket"
  3. "A new home, somewhere else"

Judges' comments: Of all the strong entries in the Explanatory category this year, the judges said this multimedia project was emotionally provoking. It stood out for its gripping narrative and its effective interweaving of the largely-forgotten legacy of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands with the advancing threat of climate change to the same remote region. The complicated issues of nuclear contamination, islander displacement and economic disruption are not easy to forget.

 

Second Place

"Power Struggle" by Scott Dance for The Baltimore Sun

Story links:

  1. "A Maryland paper mill burns a polluting sludge called black liquor. The state calls it green energy."
  2. "How a trash incinerator — Baltimore's biggest polluter — became 'green' energy"
  3. "Maryland green energy projects stall amid protests from worried neighbors"
  4. "Advocates pushing lawmakers to clean up Maryland's renewable energy supply"

Judges' comments: This multimedia piece did a great job of localizing a broad and complex topic while staying accessible to everyone. The series beautifully illustrated how macro changes affect everyday lives. The story was well-reported, engaging and brought nuance in understanding the history and meaning of the paper mill to the local town, its changing role and the challenges for adoption of newer forms of renewable energy.

 

Third Place

"Revolt: Climate and Energy Revolution in the Heartland" by Zach Toombs, Kate Grumke, Kevin Clancy and Andrew Lawler for Newsy

Judges' comments: The judges were struck by the scope and reach of the stories being told. Each of the video stories used the medium to break down and convey unique local voices and perspectives to help explain the complex debates and issues surrounding bigger environmental topics. The effort succeeded in making hard-to-understand, sometimes emotional issues accessible.

 

Honorable Mention

"Nature Knows No Borders" by William Brangham, Mark Scialla, Jon Gerberg, Murrey Jacobson, Patti Parson and Sara Just for PBS NewsHour

Judges' comments: The judges liked the twist on a story we thought we all knew as a humanitarian crisis, not one involving wildlife. It's a well-told, fresh perspective that includes great use of video.

 

Honorable Mention

"Process of Elimination" by Emma Marris and Chelsea Leu for Wired

Judges' comments: Wonderfully engaging writing. Used vivid prose and characters to help readers understand the potential of a gene-editing technique that could have devastating impacts. Bravo.

 

Honorable Mention

"Invisibles: The Plastic Inside Us" by Christopher Tyree and Dan Morrison for www.orbmedia.org, The Guardian, Public Radio International, the Irish Independent, Bild, Deutsche Welle, SVK (Slovakia), La Repubblica, Cadena SER radio (Spain, Panama, Colombia, Argentina), El Universal (Mexico), Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil), the East African, the Indian Express, Dhaka Tribune/Bangla Tribune, and Koran Tempo (Indonesia)

Story links:

  1. Multimedia
  2. Text
  3. Audio
  4. Data
  5. Orb Community

Judges' comments: The sheer magnitude of effort in bringing original academic research into reporting to answer an important question about plastics in our drinking water is astounding. All the multimedia elements, including the quizzes, data, video and infographics worked well.

 

 

Outstanding Feature Story

 

First Place

"The Lobster Prince" by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, Michael G. Seamans, Patty Cox and Kevin Hayes for weather.com | The Weather Channel Digital

Judges' comments: Adults talk about how climate change will affect the next generation. This story talks to that generation: Myron Wotton who is 11 and wants to be a lobster fisherman like his father. In a time when children are not often interviewed, this piece puts a well-defined human face on the overarching issue that will shape the planet for decades. As we learn about Myron’s life and hopes, we also learn how the ocean temperature changes creating windfall catches for his father now also put Myron’s desired future in doubt. Days after reading it, this is a story that stays with you.

 

Second Place

"The Watson Files: A Climate for Conflict" by Laura Heaton for Foreign Policy

Judges' comments: A British scientist working in Somalia for years disappears. Left behind, in an attic in London, are the notes he spirited out of the broken African country, and in them are clues to how Somalia might be able to adapt to a warming world. Written in the style of a mystery novel, this piece about climate adaptation and the hunt for the missing scientist was gripping from beginning to end.

 

Third Place

"The Valve Turners" by Michelle Nijhuis for The New York Times Magazine

Judges' comments: Crisp writing takes us into the life, and partially into the head, of Michael Foster, an environmental activist arrested for turning off the valve on an underground petroleum pipeline. He is arrested for that act, and as his court case progresses, we learn about his life, his companions and why he decided to turn that valve. We also see what can happen to a person's life when he follows his beliefs to an extreme endpoint.

 

Honorable Mention

"Backcountry Drug War" by Julian Smith for bioGraphic, High Country News, The Atlantic and Wired

Judges' comments: This story adds a warning label to the trend of marijuana legalization. As law enforcement agents sweep through public lands they find illegal grower camps where carelessly handled toxins can poison wildlife and contaminate the environment and the product that growers intend to sell.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Trees That Sail to Sea" by Brian Payton for Hakai Magazine

Judges' comments: Who would have thought that a log on a beach is more than it appears, yet this fascinating story explores driftwood as it travels the oceans and forms part of the complex marine ecosystem.

 

Honorable Mention

"The Road" by Stephanie Nolen for The Globe and Mail, www.globeandmail.com

Judges' comments: Instead of looking at the Amazon rainforest from a distant satellite, this piece puts you right in the cab of a vehicle traversing hundreds of miles of jungle road to learn about the settlements, mines, ranches, people and environmental issues in this vast part of Brazil.

 

 

Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

First Place

"White Wash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science" by Carey Gillam

Published by Island Press

Judges' comments: Many had waited for this book, and Gillam delivered, drawing on her experience and insight as a reporter who covered food and agriculture in the American Midwest for Reuters. In a work that evokes “Silent Spring,” the self-described “Kansas girl” closely followed the international furor over Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and the crops treated with it. She documented what some considered a shocking mishandling of a potential carcinogen, the main ingredient, glyphosate. She explains the behind-the-scenes politics and uses the Freedom of Information Act to help expose the science, the unasked questions and middling answers. This timely and well-organized examination of one of the world’s most compelling controversies over science and agriculture is well-researched and beautifully written and is accessible to readers who don’t have extensive science backgrounds. In an era of continuing evidence of censored science, she examines jiggered studies, industry pressure on sympathetic government regulators and the international fallout of action and inaction involving one of the most widely used chemicals in modern agriculture.

 

 

Second Place

"The Death and Life of the Great Lakes" by Dan Egan

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Judges' comments: The hard-working Dan Egan takes us on a voyage through the crucial issues surrounding the Great Lakes, home to more than 80 percent of North America's surface freshwater supply. Often, the seriousness of environmental challenges washes over us. Egan uses his Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting over past years to tell the fascinating science story of the discovery and battle over invasive zebra and quagga mussels, hideous sea lamprey, alewife and other disruptors. In an easy and accessible tone, Egan's wonderfully written, researched and well-organized examination presents the historical overview of the contamination of the continent's largest freshwater body by ocean and other exotic species with the digging of the Erie Canal and the Seaway off the St. Lawrence River. He deals with future fights over water diversions and effects of climate change. His last chapter on revival inspires with tales of species adapting and surviving the onslaught of exotics. But there's no happy ending here as he documents federal government failures to adhere to rules intended to help the lakes recover.

 

Third Place

"The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative" by Florence Williams

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Judges' comments: Florence Williams' language flows, and this fascinating book is a pleasure to read. Williams goes on important trips with top researchers and gets them to share their hypotheses, then delivers an in-depth look at a timely topic. She goes deeper into Eric Fromm's "biophilia" theory and E.O. Wilson's hypothesis that as part of evolutionary adaptation humans are emotionally attached to other living species and benefit from being in the natural world. She organizes her book logically starting with early research on stress indicators and blood pressure changes, moving to alterations in the hemoglobin level in the brain's prefrontal cortex. While she's laying out medical evidence that it's good for us to get outside, she notes research that smartphones, TV and digital media are addictive and brain-scrambling. Deftly and confidently written, the book is marked with plain, strong, clean sentences, clear thinking and a friendly tone. Williams is appropriately sparing in dry wit. She makes field work interesting, not an easy task. The judges would like to say more, but we are going outside.

 

Honorable Mention

"Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship, and Free Speech" by Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Published by University of New Mexico Press

 

Honorable Mention

"Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life" by David R. Montgomery

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

 

Honorable Mention

"Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean" by Jonathan White

Published by Trinity University Press

 

 

 


Esteemed Judges and Screeners, 2018 SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment

  • Erin Ailworth
  • Erik Anderson
  • Perry Beeman
  • Merrill Brown
  • Murray Carpenter
  • Frank Clifford
  • Marla Cone
  • Katy Daigle
  • Alexa Elliott
  • Dan Fagin
  • Ben Goldfarb
  • Heather Goldstone
  • Erin Hayes
  • Tom Henry
  • Jude Isabella
  • Cheryl Katz
  • Jane Kay
  • David Ledford
  • Betsy Marston
  • Mary Mazzocco
  • Alison Bethel McKenzie
  • Tom Palmer
  • Larry Pynn
  • Sinduja Rangarajan
  • Ricardo Sandoval
  • Susan Sharon
  • David Steinkraus
  • Doug Struck
  • Laura Ungar
  • Brett Walton

2018 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