Winners: SEJ 18th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

The Society of Environmental Journalists is pleased to announce the winners of the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment, which honor the best articles, radio broadcasts and videos released from March 1, 2018, through February 28, 2019, and the best books on environmental topics published in 2018.

This year, SEJ launched the Ray Reece "Excellence in Environmental Journalism" Student Award, with generous funding from the Ray Reece Environmental Journalism Foundation. The Ray Reece Student Award recognizes published or broadcast journalism from undergraduate, graduate and high-school students.

The number of entries in the 2019 contest soared to 478, an all-time high for the contest. Entries were judged by independent panels of journalists, working and retired, who were challenged by the excellence of the entries. The SEJ contest is the world’s largest and most comprehensive environmental journalism competition, recognizing the best news coverage of the most important stories on the planet.

The winner of the Nina Mason Pulliam Award, selected from the first-place winners in all categories, is Reuter's Ocean Shock series. SEJ honored all of the winners on Oct. 12, 2019 at a celebratory luncheon during the our 29th annual conference in Fort Collins, Colorado.


SEJ's 2019 Awards for Reporting on the Environment are...


Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Large Market
Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Small Market
Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market
Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market
Outstanding Explanatory Reporting
Outstanding Feature Story
Rachel Carson Environment Book Award
Ray Reece "Excellence in Environmental Journalism" Student Award

SEJ's 2019 Distinguished Judges


Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Large Market


First Place

"Toxic City: Sick Schools" by Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman and Dylan Purcell for The Philadelphia Inquirer

Image of "Danger: Learn at Your Own Risk"
Photo: Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Story links (may require subscription):

  1. "DANGER: Learn at Your Own Risk" and Solutions: "Ways To Make Philadelphia District Schools Healthier"
  2. "Hidden Peril" and Solutions: "Ways To Make Philly Schools Safer"
  3. "Botched Jobs" and Solutions: "How Contractors, Philly School District Can Stop Botching Repairs"
  4. "School Checkup"
  5. "How the ‘Toxic City’ Investigation Has Protected Philadelphia Children from Environmental Perils"

Supplemental material: "How We Did the Testing"

Judges' comments: Comprehensive, damning and compellingly written, "Toxic City: Sick Schools" revealed how decaying infrastructure exposed Philadelphia's children to dangerous levels of lead, mold and asbestos. The Inquirer not only obtained and analyzed building maintenance records, but recruited and trained volunteers to take samples at problem areas inside schools. The need for immediate action was driven home by the stories of individual children who had been injured by these toxic conditions, and readers were given an easy-to-use school checkup tool, as well as sidebars describing proposals to address the problems. The impact was significant: the state increased funding to fix schools, the city approved a new lead-safe certification requirement and the district committed to close and replace its worst facility. This series embodied excellence in every aspect, from concept to execution.


Second Place

"Sterigenics" by Michael Hawthorne for Chicago Tribune

Story links (PDFs):

1. "DuPage Cancer Risk Linked to Rauner"
2. "Will Plant Connected to Rauner Be Closed?"
3. "Sterigenics Cancer Risks Held Back from Public"
4. "Lake County Emissions Tied to Cancer"
5. "Chemical's Public Health Impact Just Becoming Clear"

Judges' comments: Reporter Michael Hawthorne's revelatory reporting of a company emitting toxic fumes into a suburban Chicago neighborhood was a public service for Illinois. His work focused on Willowbrook, where 19,000 people lived within a mile of Sterigenics, which uses ethylene oxide to sterilize instruments used during surgery. Breathing those fumes subjected residents to some of the highest risks of cancer nationwide. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who had a financial interest in Sterigenics, used his administration to obfuscate the facts, delay the release of important documents and deny the danger facing residents. Hawthorne kept digging, though. He alerted residents of other Illinois communities that they, too, were being exposed to toxic fumes from ethylene oxide — which mutates genes and causes breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas. Ultimately, the Willowbrook facility was shut down and residents of other neighborhoods stormed the state capitol demanding action. This is excellent investigative reporting.


Third Place

"EPA" by Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis, Josh Dawsey, Kevin Sullivan and Andrew Ba Tran for The Washington Post


  1. "Lobbyist Helped Set Up Costly Pruitt Trip"
  2. "Influential Outsiders Played a Key Role in Pruitt's Travel"
  3. "Pruitt Asked Aide To Help His Wife Open a Chick-fil-A"

Supplemental materials:

  1. "Exodus Hits EPA in Era of Trump"
  2. "Scott Pruitt: After the High Life, A Job Hunt"

PDF link for all stories and supplemental materials.

Judges' comments: This work is a reminder that not all environmental stories take place in a field or a factory. The Washington Post team uncovered gross misspending of taxpayer dollars by the top environmental official in the country, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Despite stonewalling on the part of EPA, they broke multiple stories and followed them beyond what many would consider to be The End. Ultimately, their work contributed to Pruitt losing his job. This is environmental reporting that became mainstream and agenda-setting. So much so, that — a year later — it can be easy to forget that we didn't always know these things.


Honorable Mention

"The Amazon's Climate Tipping Point" by Sam Eaton for PBS Newshour, PRI's The World and The Nation

Story links:

PBS NewsHour: The Lungs of the Planet
1. "Amazon Forest Guardians Fight To Prevent Catastrophic Tipping Point"   

PRI's The World: The Amazon's Carbon Tipping Point
2. "The Amazon Used To Be a Hedge Against Climate Change. Those Days May Be Over.
3. "For Illegal Loggers in the Brazillian Amazon, 'There Is No Fear of Being Punished"
4. "A 'Third Way' To Save the Amazon: Make Trees More Valuable"

The Nation
5. "Tropical Forests Are Flipping from Storing Carbon to Releasing It "

Judges' comments: PBS NewsHour reporter Sam Eaton sounded a worldwide alarm about planet Earth losing its lungs. Eaton traveled deep into the violence-ridden rain forest of Brazil to chronicle the fight between indigenous people struggling to save tropical woodlands from the agri-business and cattle industries trying to clear them. The logging, burning and agriculture has led to a tipping point, where the Amazon now releases more carbon than it stores. Eaton showed that if the trend continues the rain forest will begin to die, releasing massive amounts of carbon that triggers runaway global warming. This important work not only helps readers see the climate catastrophe bubbling as society looks away, it also explored potential solutions for at least mitigating the frightening trend. Well done.



Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Small Market


First Place

"They Took on the Philippines' Powerful Mining Interests, and Are Paying with Their Lives" by Lindsay Fendt for World Politics Review

A young protester holds a placard during an anti-mining rally in the financial district of Makati, south of Manila, Philippines, April 23, 2007 (AP photo by Aaron Favila).
A young protester holds a placard during an anti-mining rally in the financial district of Makati, south of Manila, Philippines, April 23, 2007. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

Story links:

  1. "They Took on the Philippines' Powerful Mining Interests, and Are Paying with Their Lives"
  2. "Fleeing Violence, the Philippines' Anti-mine Activists Are Trapped in a 'Waiting Game'"

Judges' comments: To North Americans, it is hard to imagine paying with one's life for becoming engaged in environmental issues. This important, courageous and in-depth story reveals how citizens of the Philippines risk paying the ultimate price for standing up against mining interests. The piece is very well written, drawing readers in from the start and leaving them with a greater understanding of environmental issues on a global scale.


Second Place

"Polluted by Money" by Rob Davis, Beth Nakamura, Teresa Mahoney, Mark Friesen and Steve Suo for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Story links:

  1. Introduction: "Polluted by Money"
  2. Part One: "How Corporate Cash Corrupted One of the Greenest States in America"
  3. Part Two: "Leaving a Stench: How a System Fueled by Corporate Cash Lets Foul Air Persist in The Dalles"
  4. Part Three: "Weak Watchdog: Why Oregon Regulators Backed off on Truck Pollution and More"
  5. Part Four: "Perfectly Legal: The Clear-cut Rewards of Campaign Cash"

Judges' comments: The Oregonian team's exposé on how the lack of campaign funding regulation affected environmental policies in one of the greenest states in America was comprehensive and beautifully crafted. To connect campaign funding and its impact on the environment is not an easy task, but this project executed well with the use of documents, data and easily accessible anecdotes. The use of data, graphics and visuals to contextualize the investigative findings made it easy for me to care for the story as a reader. They had me with just the intro. This piece from a local newsroom is a testament to the kind of journalism that can happen when different groups in a newsroom (data, design, reporting, digital, etc.) can all come together.


Third Place

"Ghosts in the Machine: The Land Deals Behind the Downfall of Indonesia's Top Judge" by Tom Johnson and Philip Jacobson for The Gecko Project and Mongabay

Judges' comments: A remarkable example of brave, tenacious journalism, methodically unravelling systemic corruption in Indonesia extending to the highest levels of the judiciary. Few consumers in North America can fully appreciate the human and environmental toll exacted by the palm oil industry. In that sense, this story should make us all think more critically about the true cost of our actions, at home and around the world.


Honorable Mention

"A Tale of Two Toxic Cities: The EPA's Bungled Response to an Air Pollution Crisis Exposes a Toxic Racial Divide" by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept

Judges' comments: The judges loved this story for how effectively it demonstrated racial and class disparities by contrasting experiences of an affluent suburb and a rural town. The broader implications for this story strongly resonate for the whole county, particularly the hundred plus census tracts that are at risk. A well-written piece with elements of surprise.


Honorable Mention

"Drilling Down" by David Hilzenrath, Nicholas Pacifico, Leslie Garvey and Nick Schwellenbach for Project On Government Oversight

Story links:

  1. "Big Oil's Bidding" and "Oil Companies Are Having Their Cake and Eating It, Too"
  2. "Exxon Underpaid U.S. in Offshore Oil Dispute, Report Says"
  3. "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Years After Deepwater Horizon, Offshore Drilling Hazards Persist"
  4. "Rollback: The Trump Administration Proposes to Thin Offshore Drilling Safety Rules"
  5. "Big Oil Rules: One Reporter's Runaround to Access 'Public' Documents"

Judges' comments: The news media tends to jump from coverage of one crisis to another. This detailed story takes a much-needed second look at one of North America's biggest environmental disasters in years, Deepwater Horizon. It is a quality investigative piece accomplished with limited resources and, importantly, sheds light on some of the weakened environmental laws under the Trump administration.


Honorable Mention

"Tire Failure: Lax Rules Left Mountains of Mosquito-infested, Flammable Tires in South Carolina" by Tony Bartelme and David Wren for The Post and Courier

Supplemental materials:

  1. "State Health Regulators Agree To Clean Up Mountains of Infested Tires in Moncks Corner"
  2. "Berkeley County Gets $2 million To Clean Up Tire Mess Near Moncks Corner"
  3. "Berkeley County Reviewing Proposals To Clean Up Viva Recycling's Tire Mess"
  4. "Berkeley County Ready To Pick Firm That Will Clean Up Viva Recycling's Tire Mess"
  5. "Cleanup of Berkeley County's Abandoned Tires Could Cost More"
  6. "Cleanup of Moncks Corner Tire Hazard Site To Start Aug. 20"
  7. "Tons of Tires Removed from SC Site That Ran Afoul of Environmental Laws"
  8. "Fire Reported at Former Anderson County Tire Recycling Facility"
  9. "Viva Recycling Tire Dump Cleanup Nearly Complete More Than 1 Year Ahead of Schedule"

Judges' comments: This story demonstrates the importance of local watchdog journalism to hold the powerful accountable by nailing the bureaucracy that affects communities. It's beautifully written and well-researched. The judges were impressed by the use of novel investigative materials such as drone footage and the amount of tangible impact the project has had since its publication.



Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market


First Place

Beat Reporting by David Roberts for Vox

Sunrise Movement protesters urging Democrats to back a Green New Deal in late 2018. | Sunrise Movement

Story links:

  1. "The Green New Deal, Explained"
  2. "What Genuine, No-bullshit Ambition on Climate Change Would Look Like"
  3. "Utilities Have a Problem: The Public Wants 100% Renewable Energy, and Quick"
  4. "Why Conservatives Keep Gaslighting the Nation About Climate Change"

Judges' comments: Roberts deftly combines sharp commentary with strong reporting on climate change. His pieces cover the spectrum of climate politics, from genuinely hopeful solutions to the global political dereliction of duty on implementing them.


Second Place

"Inside the Trump EPA" by Corbin Hiar, Kevin Bogardus, Ariel Wittenberg and Sean Reilly for E&E News

Story links:

  1. "EPA: Deals Give Companies More Time To Pollute"
  2. "EPA: The Story Behind the Ethics Memos on Pruitt's Condo Lease"
  3. "EPA: Agency Follows Industry Playbook To Attack Science"
  4. "CLEAN WATER ACT: EPA Falsely Claims 'No Data' on Waters in WOTUS Rule"
  5. "EPA: Wheeler's Ex-firm Lobbied Agency on Efforts He Oversees"

Judges' comments: This entry, an ensemble of EPA reporting by an ensemble of reporters, portrays the Trump-era agency as living up to its critics' worst nightmares. From the apparent petty and comical corruption of Scott Pruitt to EPA's disregard for its own science, E&E's team broke, or contributed to, the body of journalism on an agency at war with its own mission.


Third Place

"Illegal Wildlife Trade: Problems and Solutions" by Rachel Nuwer for The New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon, BBC Future

Story links:

  1. "How Japan Undermines Efforts To Stop the Illegal Ivory Trade"
  2. "Critically Endangered Giant Fish on Menu at Luxury Restaurants"
  3. "That Python in the Pet Store? It May Have Been Snatched from the Wild"
  4. "A Mysterious Illegal Egg Trade Imperils Kenya's Owls"
  5. "Meet the 'Brave Ones': The Women Saving Africa's Wildlife"

Judges' comments:

Freelancer Rachel Nuwer has carved out an important niche with expert reporting on the heartbreaking, infuriating illegal trade in endangered wildlife. Her writing conveys the outrage and outlines the path toward what might at least be partial solutions to this scourge.


Honorable Mention

"Climate Reporting" by Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Agnes Walton, Cassandra Giraldo, Hendrik Hinzel, Jika Gonzalez, Joelle Martinez, Lee Doyle, Ruben Davis and Sarah Sax for Vice News Tonight on HBO

Story links:

  1. "Alabama Has A Raw Sewage Problem Causing Parasites. The State Isn't Doing Much About It."
  2. "Climate Scientists Are Leaving the U.S. To 'Make Our Planet Great Again'"
  3. "How Newark Got Lead in Its Water, and What It Means for the Rest of America"
  4. "Coal Miners Are Dying of Black Lung — A Kentucky Law Could Make It Harder To Claim Benefits"
  5. "Spain Euthanized Its Coal Mines. This Is How Miners Are Taking It."

Judges' comments: Vice News Tonight found ways to talk about environmental issues as components of broader societal issues.


Honorable Mention

Environmental Reporting in Indiana by Sarah Bowman for The Indianapolis Star

Story links:

  1. "'We've Had Kids Die': Test Results Show Dangerous Contamination Levels in Johnson County Town"
  2. "EPA Documents: Contamination in Johnson County Known for Decades But Still Being Cleaned Up"
  3. "'Clearly They Haven't Cleaned up the Source': New Test Results Confirm Franklin Contamination"
  4. "Utilities Admit to Leaking Toxic Chemicals into Groundwater, Must Now Clean It Up"
  5. "Indiana-made Aardvark Paper Straws See 'Unprecedented Growth' As Restaurants Ditch Plastic"

Judges' comments: Sarah Bowman tackled a story that's difficult to tell and to prove. The links between water contamination and kids' cancers had an impact on the community.


Honorable Mention

"Plastics" by Laura Parker for National Geographic (online)

Story links:

  1. "Floating Trash Collector Has a Setback in Pacific Garbage Patch"
  2. "Beach Clean-up Study Shows Global Scope of Plastic Pollution"
  3. "These Communities Turn Discarded Fishing Nets into Carpets"
  4. "Plastic Recycling Is Broken. Here's How to Fix It."
  5. "China's Ban on Trash Imports Shifts Waste Crisis to Southeast Asia"

Judges' comments: In a year when concern about ocean plastic pollution grew substantially, Nat Geo delivered a comprehensive look at the problem.



Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market


First Place

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

Alex Entrup of Northeast Forest and Fire Management pauses on a hill in western Coventry to assess the prog-ress of a recent “prescribed burn.”  [The Providence Journal / David Delpoio
Alex Entrup of Northeast Forest and Fire Management pauses on a hill in western Coventry to assess the prog-ress of a recent "prescribed burn." Photo: David Delpoio/The Providence Journal

Story links (PDFs):

  1. "Has Rhode Island Starved Its Watchdog?"
  2. "Solar Sprawl"
  3. "Phoenix in the Forest"
  4. "Slippery Invader"
  5. "Trees Under Siege"

Judges' comments: Alex Kuffner's environmental reporting for The Providence Journal is a model for small-market journalists covering an environmental beat: clear, thorough, objective coverage on a range of important local issues. Well-written and well-documented, Kuffner's reporting on solar sprawl, regulatory lapses, forestry and marine issues earned the respect of the judges — and is a clear winner in this category.


Second Place

The Delaware Valley Environmental Beat by Kyle Bagenstose, Thomas Friestad, Kelly Kultys for the Bucks County Courier Times, Burlington County Times and The Intelligencer

Judges' comments: The reporting is detailed and fact-filled — excellent coverage of significant environmental issues of local and regional concern. The reporters on these stories did their homework and served their readers well.


Third Place

"California Climate Change Coverage" by Julie Cart for CalMatters

Story links:

1. "Checking the Math on Cap and Trade, Some Experts Say It's Not Adding Up"
2. "As California Enters a Brave New Energy World, Can It Keep the Lights On?"
3. "CALmatters Explains: California's War on Climate Change"
4. "California Blooms Again After Last Year's Fires — But It's Not All Good"
5. "A Blind Spot in Gov. Jerry Brown's Green Worldview? Critics Say Yes — It's Oil"

Judges' comments: This series of reports brings the topic of climate change down to Earth, as it offers multimedia coverage of related issues such as cap-and-trade, adaptation of the electrical grid and the real challenges of abandoning fossil fuels.  


Honorable Mention

Reporting on the Colorado River Basin by Luke Runyon for KUNC Radio

Story links:

  1. "Is There Water Left To Be Developed in the Colorado River Basin?"
  2. "In the Colorado River, These Little Suckers Are Making a Comeback"
  3. "Amid Climate and Fed Pressure, Colorado River Water Managers Attempt To Chart New Course"
  4. "Fear and Grieving in Las Vegas: Colorado River Managers Struggle with Water Scarcity"
  5. "Western Water Managers Bet on Cloud Seeding, Despite Gaps in Science"

Judges' comments: KUNC reporter Luke Runyon's comprehensive coverage of Colorado River Basin issues is timely and compelling.


Honorable Mention

"Air Pollution in Western Pennsylvania" by Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health News

Story links:

  1. "60% of Pittsburgh Kids with Asthma Don't Have ​Their Disease Under Control"
  2. "ER Visits for Asthma Dropped 38% the Year After One of Pittsburgh's Biggest Polluters Shut Down"
  3. "Can Mandatory School Screenings Solve Pittsburgh's Asthma Epidemic?"
  4. "Is There a Connection Between Pittsburgh's High Rates of Asthma and Autoimmune Disorders?"
  5. "Cancer in Pittsburgh: Prevention Lags As Pollution Persists"

Supplemental Material: "What Do Politicians Have To Say About Pittsburgh's Asthma Epidemic?"

Judges' comments: Based in Environmental Health News' Pittsburgh bureau, reporter Kristina Marusic provides thorough, even-handed coverage of the effects of air pollution on some of Pennsylvania's most vulnerable residents.


Honorable Mention

"Wyoming's Challenged Landscape" by Angus Thuermer for WyoFile

Story links:

1. "Why a Wrinkle in Wyo Water Law Is Worth Millions"
2. "Pavillion Water Experts Fault Leaky Gas Wells, Unlined Pits"
3. "Emergency Letter: Save 'Highest Grouse Density Areas on Earth'"
4. "Chronic Wasting Disease Reaches Grand Teton National Park"
5. "Is the Public Being Cut Out of Public-Lands Decisions?"

Judges' comments: WyoFile Reporter Angus Thuermer covers the territory in Wyoming with insightful and well-documented reporting on a range of significant local and regional environmental issues.




Outstanding Explanatory Reporting


First Place*

Ocean Shock image"Ocean Shock" by Maurice Tamman, Matthew Green, Mari Saito, Sarah Slobin and Maryanne Murray for Reuters

Judges' comments: Reuters' "Ocean Shock" series is a breathtakingly comprehensive look at the many factors that are harming our seas, particularly climate change, aquaculture and overfishing. "Ocean Shock" takes readers from the shores of New England, where a climate-driven lobster boom has fishermen celebrating despite the inevitable bust; to Borneo, where mangrove forests are being torn out for shrimp farms; to Japan, where the collapse of the "true squid" is precipitating a national identity crisis. Closely linked yet unique, Reuters' stories are exhaustively reported, lucidly written and unfailingly gripping. Together, they vividly depict an ocean under cumulative stress from a multitude of sources, and follow the money to those stressors' roots.

* And winner of the $10,000 best-in-show Nina Mason Pulliam Award


Second Place

"Blowout: Inside America's Energy Gamble" by Jamie Smith Hopkins, Jie Jenny Zou, Rachel Leven, Jim Morris and Pratheek Rebala (The Center for Public Integrity); Dave Harmon, Kiah Collier, Jerod Foster, Marjorie Kamys Cotera, Darla Cameron  and Chris Essig (The Texas Tribune); Ellen Weiss, Zach Toombs, Kate Grumke, Kevin Clancy, Kyle Pyatt and Jennifer Smart (Newsy); and Michael Hudson, Michael Biesecker and Kim Tong-Hyung (The Associated Press)

Story links:

  1. "As Oil and Gas Exports Surge, West Texas Becomes the World's 'Extraction Colony'"
  2. "How Washington Unleashed Fossil-fuel Exports and Sold out on Climate"
  3. "A Newsy Documentary — Blowout: Inside America's Energy Gamble" (video trailer)
  4. "Drilling Overwhelms Agency Protecting America's Lands"
  5. "Death in the Oilfields"

Judges' comments: "Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble" is a compelling series that probes the environmental and climate health effects of the country's biggest oil and natural gas production boom in West Texas and part of New Mexico. This entry is a very good read with in-depth reporting that makes us think about America's energy policies. The series and video documentary skillfully weave together accounts of local, national and global repercussions from a rush to capture crude after Congress lifted restrictions on oil exports. We hear from neighbors upset by lax regulation of air pollution from drilling sites, politicians eager for jobs and production, and the web of political interests making America a major oil exporter amid international efforts to rely less on less fossil fuels. Kudos to the Center for Public Integrity, the Texas Tribune, Newsy and Associated Press for managing this far-flung team journalism project.


Third Place

"Cancer-linked Chemicals Manufactured by 3M Are Turning Up in Drinking Water" by Tiffany Kary and Christopher Cannon, with photographs by Daniel Acker and Houston Cofield, for Bloomberg News

Judges' comments: This story peels back the covers of an iconic Minnesota company to reveal decades of corporate coverup about the widespread contamination and serious health impacts of its flagship Scotchgard and other PFAS-containing products. Propelled by solid documentation, gripping exposition and enlightening graphics, the reporting follows these "forever" chemicals from their Manhattan Project-era origin to their presence at "unsafe" levels in the water supply of millions of Americans today. Although the PFAS topic has been widely reported on, this outstanding example of explanatory writing brings important new depth, analysis and history to a pressing environmental health issue.


Honorable Mention

"Arctic Cauldron/Gone in a Generation" by Chris Mooney, Zoeann Murphy and Jonathan Newton for The Washington Post

Story links:

  1. "Arctic Cauldron"
  2. "Gone in a Generation"

Judges' comments: This series uses smooth writing, smart graphics and compelling videos to give voices to regular people like firefighters and fishermen about how climate change affects their environment. This was a highly entertaining read that smartly blended scientific background about climate change.


Honorable Mention

"Lead Exposure" by Charles Schmidt, with visuals by Maddie McGarvey, for Undark

Judges' comments: Charles Schmidt's investigation into lowering threshold levels for lead treatment takes a surprising, counterintuitive stance: that treating too many lead-exposed children can actually do harm, by putting intense pressure on overburdened case management systems. This seemingly improbable claim, however, is corroborated by Schmidt's stellar reporting, which includes powerful testimony from physicians, officials and, most important, lead exposure sufferers themselves.


Honorable Mention

"Into the Gulf Stream: A Powerful Current Just Miles from SC is Changing" by Tony Bartelme for The Post and Courier

Judges' comments: "Into the Gulf Stream" starts off like a cannonball into the warm, salty waters off South Carolina's coast. Brilliant prose, backgrounded by an exciting historical adventure story, illuminates the importance of this powerful current and the critical question of whether it's slowing as atmospheric carbon levels rise — with what likely effects on the planet. This package of stories has it all: a lesson in fluid dynamics, fish tales and even a coloring book.



Outstanding Feature Story


First Place

"Losing Earth" by Nathaniel Rich for The New York Times Magazine. Photography by George Steinmetz.

Screenshot of story headline


Judges' comments: Strong, gutsy, take-no-prisoners writing backs up this deep dive into early climate change research and a campaign for climate policy led by a small group of scientists, activists and politicians. Rich recounts efforts between 1979 and 1989 where the government grasped scientists’ warnings of the catastrophic dangers of failing to rein in human-caused carbon emissions. Still, the government failed to act. "Losing Earth" is a prequel, of sorts, to the growing list of missed opportunities to stave off the climate change impacts, some of which we're seeing today that are documented in the amazing aerial photography accompanying the article. This well-researched narrative — controversial to some — is an important contribution to the large body of work on climate change. It helps mankind learn more about itself: its weaknesses, its political frailty and its mistakes.


Second Place

"Paper Tiger" by Brooke Jarvis for The New Yorker

Judges' comments: This well-written and -researched detective story brings to life the forces leading to the extinction, maybe, of the Tasmanian Tiger, and sets them in the bigger context of how human pressures continue to wreak havoc on the natural world. Jarvis immerses readers in Tasmania and weaves a wonderful narrative by exploring not only the culture, but also the never-say-die-psychology and what some people see as plausible denials of species extinction. The tension between hope and obsession is intriguing, as noted near the end in this statement: "On a planet reeling from the alarming consequences of human activity, it's comforting to think that our mistakes may not be final, that nature is wholly stripped of its capacity for surprise."

Third Place

"The World's Worst Industrial Disaster Is Still Unfolding" by Apoorva Mandavilli for The Atlantic

Judges' comments: A detailed, multi-layered tale examining the lasting impacts of the 1984 lethal gas leak at the Union Carbide Corp. pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Mandavilli’s reporting shows, 35 years after the tragedy, the cleanup of the 70-acre site surrounding the shuttered plant is stalled. Waste pits, tainted soil and spreading groundwater contamination pose serious health threats to neighboring communities. Health care benefits due to survivors exposed to the 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas that escaped from the plant are slow to come, if at all. In short, this is a well-written environmental justice (injustice) story.


Honorable Mention

"Fuel to the Fire" by Abrahm Lustgarten for ProPublica, co-published with The New York Times Magazine

Judges' comments: Excellent reporting reveals how Indonesia and its booming palm-oil industry disguise the continued slashing and burning of forests, despite regulations meant to halt the deforestation. Lustgarten analyzed government records, maps, data, and traveled to remote palm plantations in Borneo and beyond. In connecting the dots, he documents the true environmental costs of Western low-carbon fuel laws, which have boosted demand for vegetable oils.


Honorable Mention

"Miami Will Be Underwater Soon. Its Drinking Water Could Go First." by Christopher Flavelle for Bloomberg Businessweek

Judges' comments: Nicely written and well-reported piece on how saltwater flooding threatens to contaminate the Biscayne Aquifer, Miami's raw source of drinking water. The article also examines the public health effects of the city's heavy use of septic tanks.


Honorable Mention

"Basking on the Brink" by Emily Sohn, with photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee, for bioGraphic

Judges' comments: Well-written and exquisitely photographed account explaining the plight of the gharials, once the most common crocodiles in South Asia, and why 80 percent of the few left in the world are in India's Chambal River, which also faces threats.



Rachel Carson Environment Book Award


First Place

"The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy" by Anna Clark

Cover image of The Poisoned CityPublished by Metropolitan Books  / Henry Holt & Company

Judges' comments: This superior "act of journalism by a journalist," as one juror described, offers a relevant, timely story still in the news today. Anna Clark tells of the devastating, ongoing story of an unnatural disaster, racist neglect and the importance of media coverage. The book makes clear this is not a story about one city's fight against lead poisoning and redlining, and offers a clear demonstration of how an individual or community can fight back against toxins. The story is both detailed and riveting.

From the opening pages the author makes clear the broad implications and importance of what is, on its face, a local story of mismanagement, malfeasance and hubris. This is the story of an unnatural disaster that was avoidable and could happen in numerous other cities facing the same 21st Century pressures. One juror, from experiences in reporting on similar stories, said "this topic is fraught" with enormous issues of trust, both with science sources and with residents. And added,  "What [Clark] has achieved is extraordinarily complete, sympathetic and yet damning."

"The Poisoned City" is powerful, comprehensive and gripping. This is the book Flint needs. It's the book we all need. Carson's reported quote, along with robust endnotes points to a critical attention getter: "Neglect, it turns out, is not a passive force in American cities, but an aggressive one."


Second Place

"In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress and a Changing World" by Lauren E. Oakes

Cover image of In Search of the Canary TreePublished by Basic Books / Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Judges' comments: This tale weaves together strands of science, human struggles, philosophy and the quest for a life of meaning and resilience in the face of climate change. Oakes offers a model for excellent environmental research. One juror noted that as a scientist-conservationist-literary author, Oakes shares a strong biographical overlap with Rachel Carson. Another juror shared that in the submission pile of 27 books, Oakes offered the best informed narrative on climate change.

The book's structure, although somewhat complex and focused on the work of science, holds the reader throughout. The science is solid: a research question, hypothesis and findings. Understanding throughout is enhanced with conversations offering easier reader accessibility. Included is a pertinent quote about Carson by Greg Streveler: "It's intellectually dishonest to be hopeful, but it's equally stupid to be hopeless." 


Third Place

"Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter" by Ben Goldfarb

Image of EagerPublished by Chelsea Green Publishing

Judges' comments: Folks, especially nature lovers, who live near beaver habitat — and that covers a lot of the U.S. and Canada! — will likely embrace what they'll learn from this portrayal of these eco-engineers with wildly different eco-vision from ours. Think of these fascinating critters as useful Swiss Army Knives. Goldfarb offers a simple message told well: recognize our limits and learn from nature.

Readers will learn what they may have thought they knew — or didn't know — about what a healthy river should look like. And they'll discover well presented histories of native peoples, the fur trade, trappers and a host of government agencies charged with protecting the environment. Color photos help, along with 21 pages of notes. Readers' views of nature and systems will be expanded. Overall, this is a charming tale of what we need to learn from other species sharing this threatened planet. As the author makes clear, it's time to get over our grandiose sense of self worth. Time to recognize our limits.


Honorable Mention

"Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore" by Elizabeth Rush

Image of RisingPublished by Milkweed

Judges' comments: The voice, the pacing and emotional timbre of this deeply personal and thoughtful narrative will hold tightly onto readers throughout the 300-plus pages.  The book provides an extremely well written account of how climate change is transforming lives along the shores. The book is almost an elegy and reads akin to great literature. One critic called the book "lyrical reportage." The author warns us to retreat or perish; learn how to let go of the places we love and know as home. She tells us to prepare for the disappearance of parts of the Earth, never to be seen again. Prepare for the loss of many natural resources. Warnings through real voices from Maine to Rhode Island, Louisiana, Florida, New York, California and more.

But the real punch in this book comes from the call to PAY ATTENTION. Rush warns the problem of climate change is now. It's time to rise up, listen and act.  Hers is a clarion call for help, much as was Carson's "Silent Spring."

The jurors recommend reading all four books to feel the full impact of journalism, science communication and literature.  Lessons in ecology via such expert storytelling is much needed.



Ray Reece "Excellence in Environmental Journalism" Student Award


First Place

"Abandoned Mines" by Chris McCrory for Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University

Image from In a Hole
Damaging or removing warning signs, such as these near an abandoned mine west of Kingman, is a felony in Arizona but rarely ever prosecuted. Photo: Celisse Jones/Cronkite News

Story links:

  1. "In a Hole: Arizona Officials Lack Funds To Find, Secure at Least 100,000 Abandoned Mines"
  2. "Arizona's Two Abandoned-mine Inspectors Face Daunting Task: 'We're All by Ourselves'"

Judges' comments: Chris McCrory's series about Arizona's abandoned mines for ASU's Cronkite News started with a visit to the state mine inspector's office and the realization that there were at least 100,000 abandoned gold, metal, silver and copper mines across the state and that officials know the location of only a small fraction of them. Nor did they know how many people died or had been injured in them. The judges were impressed that he seized the story with determination and enterprise. His multi-sourced, two-part article explored the dangers the mines pose, their history and the Sisyphean tasks of the states' two mine
supervisors. His focus on the state's inability to afford to secure the mines provides public service to residents and visitors and a call to action to legislators, and is a great example of determined independent reporting.

Coverage:Effort, obsession pay off for student journalism award winner,” Covering the Planet, Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, October 24, 2019, by Andrew Blok.


Second Place

"Aftermath" by The Aftermath Team, Class in Journalism — International Projects, School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill

Story links:

  1. "A Natural Revolution"
  2. "Rooted in El Caño"
  3. "Flipping the Switch"
  4. "The Healing Brigade"
  5. "A Fight for Life"

Judges' comments: Students in this project tackled the rebuilding of Puerto Rico after Maria with five ambitious teams looking at power, pollution, health, water and ecology. Each team produced documentary video, long-form articles, interactive data, 360 video, drone footage, photos, UX/UI design and coding. Students also collaborated with Puerto Rican students to ensure that the project was accurate and culturally sensitive, and held screenings in both North Carolina and Puerto Rico. After the launch of "Aftermath," HuffPost also published all five stories. The judges felt this was a superior example of the potential of modern journalism, done with teamwork, blending skills of many multimedia, and presenting an issue in an appealing and informative package.


Third Place

"Peak Florida" by Environmental Journalism Class, College of Journalism, University of Florida

Story links:

  1. "Peak Florida"
  2. "Fish Island"
  3. "Rural Heritage"
  4. "Room for Wildlife"
  5. "Solutions"

Judges' comments: Sparked by a letter from two citizens, 13 students in this class fanned out across Florida to look into underreported issues of the state's rising growth and climate change. The results are an impressive package of data, graphs, interactivity, good writing, photography, videography and art. The five-day series, published on the College of Journalism’s public media platform, ended with a focus on tangible solutions. The package was an example of good group journalism and creative use of modern multimedia approaches brought to illuminate a topical and important issue.


Honorable Mention

"Hands, Heart and Feet: Havasupai Children Write Letters Urging Trump To Ban Canyon Mining" by Lillian Donahue (broadcast reporter) and Christopher Cadeau (digital reporter), Cronkite Journalism School, Arizona State University

Supplemental material:

  1. Follow-up TV report to show the impact of 2018 coverage aired February 26, 2019

Judges' comments: This work explored the impact of uranium mining on the Colorado River and the children of the Havasupai Tribe who have lived at the base of the Grand Canyon for hundreds of years. Donahue negotiated with multiple tribal leaders to break this story nationally. In March 2018, Donahue and Cadeau ran alongside advocates in the Supai village and spent time listening to multiple community members' concerns. From filming a long-form piece for air, to cutting a radio feature on Phoenix's public radio station KJZZ, to editing a 360-degree video of the blue-green water at Havasupai Falls, their TV, radio and digital reporting cover concerns of a previously silenced group of people. This important multimedia journalism gave voice to the concerns of an often-marginalized community that has deep fears that uranium mining may contaminate their water.


Honorable Mention

"Feeding Change: Puerto Rico's Push for Food Independence Intertwined with Debate over Statehood" by Jenna Miller, Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University

Judges' comments: Six months after Hurricane Maria, ASU Cronkite School graduate student Jenna Miller spent Spring break 2018 in Puerto Rico as part of the Cronkite Borderlands Project, a multimedia reporting program in which students cover human rights, immigration and border issues in the U.S. and abroad in both English and Spanish. She spent time with farmers who are trying to make changes now so that the country can grow more of its own food, people who said the country couldn't continue to import 85 percent of the food. This thoroughly reported article goes beyond the traditional "rebuilding after a disaster" story. Enhanced by multimedia, it gives readers a nuanced look at the food and political system that residents hope will give the country its freedom.


Esteemed Judges and Screeners, 2019 SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment

Merrill Brown
Dennis Cuff, , Bay Area News Group (retired)
Peter Dykstra, EHN/Daily Climate
Dan Fagin
Beth Gardiner, Freelance Journalist and Author
Ben Goldfarb
Heather Goldstone
Thomas Hayden, Stanford University
Erin Hayes
Tom Henry
Rebecca Hersher
Don Hopey
Stephen Hume
Cheryl Katz
David Ledford
Mary Mazzocco
Darlene Natale
Miles O'Brien
Brian O’Donoghue
Tom Palmer, The (Lakeland, Fla) Ledger (retired)
Katina Paron, InsideClimate News
Craig Pittman, Tampa Bay Times
Francis Plourde
Larry Pynn, The Vancouver Sun (retired)
Sinduja Rangarajan, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
Doug Struck
JoAnn Valenti, Emerita Professor
Tim Wheeler, (Chesapeake) Bay Journal
Carolyn Whetzel, Independent Journalist and Bloomberg BNA Retiree
Trish Wilson
Wes Wolfe

SEJ 2019 Awards Committee

Emilia Askari, Independent Journalist
Katy Daigle, Science News
Parimal Rohit, The Log newspaper

Director of SEJ Awards

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