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Behind the Headline: Deborah Goldberg

ProPublica’s enterprising reporting on fracking gave an attorney the information she needed to address critical environmental issues. “To my mind, ProPublica’s series of articles was the most informative account we had of what was happening with fracking,” she said.

Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica

Impact has been at the core of ProPublica’s mission since we launched 10 years ago, and it remains the principal yardstick for our success today. For our 10th anniversary, we’re presenting stories of people whose lives have been affected by our work.

In 2008 Deborah Goldberg was hired as the managing attorney for EarthJustice’s new northeast regional office in New York City. Her job was to lead the office’s litigation team, using community partnerships and the force of the law to address critical environmental issues.

Goldberg soon discovered that her colleagues in other environmental organizations across the state were in an uproar. Gov. David Paterson had just signed new legislation to fast-track hydraulic fracturing, the shale gas drilling technique now known to cause water contamination and a host of other environmental and health problems.

“We kept on hearing about this fracking stuff,” Goldberg said. “We didn’t know anything about it. But we thought somebody probably should look into this.”

To get a handle on fracking’s potential environmental harm, Goldberg started collecting media reports. “At that point, there was practically no information out there,” she said. One of the few reporters investigating the new technology was Abrahm Lustgarten at the newly launched ProPublica. The series “Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat” started in July of 2008 and ran through 2016. It found more than 1,000 instances of water contamination in the western states caused by fracking — and heightened national awareness of the dangers the drilling process posed to water supplies in the east as well.

“ProPublica broke this story,” said Goldberg. “Abrahm was really the first person who took a sustained look in a series of well-investigated articles about what fracking means, instead of piecemeal reports coming from all over the country. It was an invaluable resource, in part because the industry had a huge media operation saying that there’s no problem and everything’s okay.”

ProPublica’s in-depth reporting also prompted academics to focus on the issue more systematically, through a scientific lens. “For a long time there was an absence of peer-reviewed literature,” said Goldberg. “A well-written, well-researched set of media articles was really important in the early days before we actually had scientific studies. To my mind, ProPublica’s series of articles was the most informative account we had of what was happening with fracking.”

Within 48 hours of ProPublica’s first story, which specifically focused on fracking in New York State, Gov. Paterson placed a temporary hold on the practice. In 2014, following a state review of the gas drilling process — and EarthJustice litigation — Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a ban on fracking in New York.

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